Israeli-American woman Naama Issachar, 26, was sentenced on Friday to seven-and-a-half years in a Russian prison after several grams of cannabis were found in her luggage in Moscow.
It is now believed that Issachar’s heavy sentence may have been designed to pressure Israel into not handing cyber-criminal Alexei Borkov, who is currently detained in Israel, over to the Americans. Borkov was arrested while visiting Israel in 2015 after Israeli authorities saw an Interpol alert. He is wanted in the United States on suspicion of hacking U.S. credit card databases.
Former Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked signed an order to extradite Borkov to the United States, but the process required a court review and a follow-up extradition order.
According to reports, the Russians proposed a prisoner swap over the summer, which Israel rejected due to legal difficulties and a disinclination to refuse an American extradition request.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed the proposed prisoner-exchange deal at a meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Sept. 12.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on Friday saying Issachar’s sentence “does not fit the nature of the offense” being attributed to her.
“The authorities in Israel have been active regarding Issachar throughout her detention. Israel has delivered a clear message: The punishment being demanded by the Russian prosecutor is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar,” said the statement.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu requested a commuting of the sentence and an easing of the terms of Naama’s detention. To our regret, the Russian prosecution has not yet accepted these requests,” the statement continued.
On Saturday, it appeared likely that Israel would buck the Russian pressure and extradite Borkov to the United States.
Sources in the legal system told Israeli daily Israel Hayom that Borkov’s request to be returned to Russia was “thin and baseless from a legal perspective.” The same sources also said that Israel and the United States had long been cooperating on the extradition of criminals held in either country and that “it was unreasonable to ruin those ties in the current circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Israel Hayom has also learned that Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to clarify developments. During the meeting, Viktorov was informed of Israel’s displeasure at how Russian authorities were treating Issachar.
In April, Issachar, 26, was caught by Moscow airport security staff with 9.5 grams of cannabis in one of her suitcases. She was jailed for approximately six months; on Friday, a Russian court sentenced her to more than seven years in prison.
Issachar’s relatives gave interviews on Friday and expressed their shock at the young woman being held as a bargaining chip. Her mother, Yaffa, told Israel Hayom: “I’m horrified. It was a sham trial. It was just a big show. It’s not [about] nine grams of drugs; it’s about a battle between two countries, and look how long my daughter will have to pay the price.”
Yisrael, Issachar’s uncle, said after her sentence was announced, “After the developments of the past few hours, we aren’t surprised at the punishment. Now we know who the enemy is. Until now we didn’t know why the case got so complicated. Now we know why and it will be easier for us. Thus far, we’ve focused on the amount of drugs she supposedly had, but now everyone understands that wasn’t the issue. Everything is out in the open. The girl is a hostage.”