The Kremlin has confirmed that Russian president Vladimir Putin is prepared to discuss the fate of a jailed Israeli-American backpacker when he visits Jerusalem this week.
Russian authorities found 9 grams of marijuana in Naama Issachar’s luggage during a layover at Pulkova Airport in St. Petersburg between flights from India to Israel. She claimed she accidentally left it in her bag when flying home, but she was jailed for seven-and-a-half years.
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has written to Russian leader Vladimir Putin to ask him to pardon Issachar, but thus far the pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Her family alleges that she is being punished disproportionately to pressure Israel into freeing a Russian held in Israel on a U.S. extradition request.
Putin is due to visit Israel on Thursday and his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said it is “highly likely” that the topic will be raised when he meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Peskov refused to confirm whether or not Putin would grant the pardon that Rivlin requested.
He will be in Israel to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and will also hold private meetings with Netanyahu and Rivlin.
The Times of Israel reported that Netanyahu met with Issachar on the weekend to discuss the case. The 27-year-old soldier, who was born and raised in New Jersey and moved to Israel at the age of 16, has become a cause célèbre in Israel, and some have portrayed her as a political pawn.
An American student charged with drug possession after bringing medical marijuana into St. Petersburg last year was only fined 15,000 rubles ($230) by a Russian court. She was then allowed to go free after spending time behind bars while awaiting trial.
Issachar was expecting a similar fate, as the initial charge was possession, but it was upgraded to smuggling and she was hit with a lengthy custodial sentence. Israeli journalists believe her treatment was part of a failed diplomatic manoeuvre to prevent Israel from extraditing alleged Russian computer hacker Alexei Burkov to the United States.
Netanyahu said he has already spoken about Issachar with Putin over the phone, and he is now feeling more optimistic about the chances of bringing her back to Israel.