Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chair of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.

In recent years, I’ve been asked many times whether Russia, under the rule of Vladimir Putin, is returning to Soviet-style totalitarianism. Each time, I’ve insisted that despite the ever-greater concentration of power in the hands of Putin’s administration, and especially the alarming loss of judicial independence, today’s Russia is still quite different from the Soviet Union in which millions of citizens had experience in the gulag and millions worked as KGB informants.

I believe that in today’s world of open communication, it is impossible to recreate such a system of indoctrination and to so effectively control citizens’ minds through fear, especially in a country of Russia’s size.

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Nevertheless, with each new example of the Russian government’s lawlessness and corruption in recent years, discerning such a clear distinction between the behavior of the current regime and that of the Soviet dictatorship has become increasingly difficult.

The current case of Na’ama Issachar, a 26-year-old American Israeli who was detained for marijuana possession this past spring during a Moscow airport stopover and later charged with smuggling drugs, is a new and troubling step in Moscow’s growing abuse of the judiciary for political ends.

A Post headline on Sunday indicates why this case is so alarming: “Jailed New Jersey native a pawn in U.S.-Russia-Israeli tensions.” Issachar is being used by the Russian government as a hostage to obtain the release of an alleged criminal hacker, who is currently held in Israel and wanted by the United States. Aleksey Burkov, a Russian IT specialist who was indicted in Virginia in 2015 for crimes related to selling stolen credit card information, according to Israeli press reports, was arrested that same year in Israel on an Interpol warrant at the United States’ request. The Israeli Supreme Court has since approved his extradition to the United States. All that remains is for the Israeli justice minister to sign off.

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This is where Issachar comes in. Last April, returning to Tel Aviv from a trip to India, she took a connecting flight in Moscow, where her luggage was searched in its transition from one aircraft to another. (Witnesses say that the Israelis’ bags were specially targeted for inspection.) In her suitcase, Russian authorities found less than 10 grams of marijuana — an amount small enough for legal possession in Israel, but illegal in Russia. Issachar’s lawyer reportedly told the family that, for foreigners, possession of such a small amount typically results in a short detention, a fine and expulsion.

While Issachar was initially accused of merely possessing the drug, two weeks later she was suddenly charged with smuggling, which entails a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison. On Friday — after hearings held on the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — Issachar was convicted and sentenced to 7½ years in prison.

The charges were absurd — the minuscule amount of drugs wasn’t being smuggled into Russia, after all, because Issachar was simply changing planes and did not go through customs — and the sentence outrageously disproportionate. Yet her imprisonment gives Moscow leverage to try to prevent Burkov’s extradition to the United States. In discussions at the highest levels of government, I have learned Russian officials told their Israeli counterparts in no uncertain terms that they could secure Issachar’s freedom by releasing Burkov to them.

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This is hardly the first time that Russian officials have used the court system to carry out extortion. The most notorious example is the case of Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested after accusing Russian tax officials of theft, was blackmailed and threatened, and died under horrific circumstances in detention in 2009. Although very different in nature from Issachar’s ordeal, Magnitsky’s case is an indication of how dangerous cooperation between the judicial system and executive power can be.

Yet this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a complete outsider — not a Russian citizen, not a resident, not even a tourist who entered Russia — has been caught up in Moscow’s machinations. Issachar’s imprisonment represents a disturbing prospect: that anyone who holds a targeted citizenship — in this case, American and Israeli, a common combination — can be detained while merely transiting in Russia, convicted on trumped-up charges and then held as a hostage.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been working intensely for Issachar’s release, or at least for a substantial reduction of her sentence and an improvement of the conditions of her imprisonment. Unfortunately, the intentions of the U.S. government, which has as much of a stake as Israel in the just resolution of this matter, have so far been considerably less clear.

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These days, many people looking for bargain fares, including some of my friends and relatives, choose to travel through Russia. It is worth asking whether flying through Moscow to save money is worth the risk of becoming the Putin government’s next unsuspecting victim.

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