Putin Pardons American-Israeli Swept Up in Geopolitical Game
Naama Issachar had been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for a small amount of marijuana. The case was linked to the American extradition of a Russian man.
Naama Issachar at a court hearing in Moscow in December.Credit...Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Jan. 29, 2020
MOSCOW — An American-Israeli woman was pardoned on Wednesday, months after her severe punishment on charges of having a small amount of marijuana had made her an unwitting pawn in a geopolitical game.
The pardon, issued by President Vladimir V. Putin, came on the eve of a visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. The two leaders are expected to talk about the Middle East plan proposed by President Trump this week.
The woman, Naama Issachar, was arrested in April after Russian officials said they found marijuana in her luggage during an airline stopover in Moscow while en route from India to Israel. The amount — 9.5 grams, about a third of an ounce — would normally result in no more than a month’s detention, a fine and deportation from Russia. The amount is within the legal limit in Israel.
But in October, a Russian court sentenced Ms. Issachar to seven and a half years in prison on drug possession and smuggling charges, and she was sent to a penal colony. Investigators said Ms. Issachar had admitted to possession, but she later said that the statement was given under pressure.
Israeli officials and Ms. Issachar’s relatives said that the Kremlin had linked her fate to that of Alexei Burkov, a Russian man being held in Israel while facing extradition to the United States on computer crime charges. Shortly after Ms. Issachar was sentenced, however, Israel went ahead with his extradition to the United States.
After Ms. Issachar’s case become a political issue in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu vowed to work for her freedom and raised the issue repeatedly in meetings and phone calls with Mr. Putin.
Little progress was made, however, before Mr. Putin came to Israel last week to attend an event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. During the visit, the Russian president met with Ms. Issachar’s mother, Yaffa Issachar, and told her that “everything will be O.K.”
Mr. Putin’s visit coincided with Israel’s decision to hand over to Russia the ownership of an important religious building in central Jerusalem, which once belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In his decree, Mr. Putin portrayed the pardon as a gesture of good will “guided by the principles of humanity.”
Mr. Netanyahu thanked the Russian leader in a statement that called the Trump plan “the deal of the century.”
Ms. Issachar, who was born in New Jersey but lives in Israel, was still being held late Wednesday, though officials said they expected her to be freed on Thursday. Her release is likely to help Mr. Netanyahu’s chances in Israel’s March 2 election.