On April 9, 2019, Israeli Naama Issachar, 26, was arrested in the Moscow airport for carrying nine grams of cannabis while in transport from India to Israel. She was charged with smuggling drugs and sentenced to seven and a half years in a Russian prison, a sentence many consider too extreme for the crime Issachar committed.
In light of her unusually long sentence, her transfer from the prison in Moscow—where foreign criminals are normally held—to an isolated one outside of the capital, and the restriction from receiving phone calls, family visits, letters and kosher food, have led many to believe that Russia is using Issachar’s arrest to bargain for the return of Alexei Burkov. Burkov is a Russian hacker accused by the United States of credit card fraud and was arrested in Israel during his 2015 trip at the request of the U.S. Both the U.S. and Russia are looking to Israel to extradite Burkov to their respective countries, but the U.S. made this request first; therefore, Russia is suspected of using Issachar as a ploy to convince Israel to swap her with Burkov. Naama Issachar’s uncle believes she is “a hostage, abducted in order to bargain for a Russian hacker.”
Israeli officials refused to return the hacker to Russia, and on October 30, Justice Minister Amir Ohana announced his official plan to extradite Burkov to the U.S. Prior to this decision, Issachar’s family had been pleading with Ohana to delay the extradition, so as not to worsen Naama Issachar’s position. Her concerned mother, Yafa, remarked, “I want to believe that [the extradition] will not happen, it would be terrible… It doesn’t make sense, they won’t hand him over to America when my daughter is a bargaining chip.” After Ohana’s decision, Issachar’s lawyers pledged they would file an appeal to the High Court of Justice against his resolve. They characterized the appeal as “an expectation based on the principles of law and justice that this decision will not stand.”
On October 17, prior to Ohana’s official plans to extradite Burkov to the U.S., he defended his position by saying, “I suggest not creating a very dangerous precedent here, that each time there is a country that wants to have someone extradited, it captures an Israeli and makes a scapegoat of them.” Just one day before Ohana finalized the extradition, his words seemed to have rung true when Jordan detained an Israeli who was swimming in the Jordan River and crossed the border. Jordan is believed to be holding him in order to make an exchange between him and two Jordanians, Hiba Labadi and Abdul Rahman Miri, detained by Israel in August, who have still not been charged with any crime, but were arrested for crossing the border. Jordanian official, Khalil Attia, took this a step further and urged that Jordan not release the Israeli detainee without freeing all 22 Jordanians jailed in Israel, maintaining that “the release of all Jordanians is now on the agenda.”
Israeli officials are continually meeting with President Vladamir Putin to discuss pardoning Issachar. In a letter thanking Putin for his assistance in recovering the body of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, who was captured in the Lebanon War, President Rivlin added, “I am appealing to your mercy and compassion with a request for your personal intervention to grant her [Issachar] an extraordinary pardon.” On October 15, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued an official clemency request to Putin, and Putin celebrated Netanyahu’s 70th birthday on October 21 with a phone call to the Prime Minister, in which the Prime Minister again requested that Putin pardon Issachar. Israeli officials are hoping that Issachar will be released by the time Putin visits Jerusalem in January.
While Israeli officials are advocating on Issachar’s behalf, the citizens are joining in their efforts. On October 13, the Israeli government issued an official statement warning against travelling to Russia at the moment, and since then, Travelist, Israel’s travel site, reported that flight demand to Moscow has decreased by 30 percent with flight reservations decreasing by 11 percent. Maria Elkin, an Israeli-Russian citizen, who planned to participate in Moscow’s February marathon, cancelled her flight, saying, “I love the city and I will miss it dearly, but I won’t go back there any time soon. I also renounced my Russian citizenship.” On October 19, hundreds of citizens protested in Tel Aviv, chanting “Free Naama!” and listened to her close friends speak about her. Her lawyer, Alexander Teitz, claims Issachar “was overwhelmed by the great support she received from Israel and Jews around the world.”