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Jailed New Jersey native a pawn in U.S.-Russian-Israeli tensions

Israel and his wife read an article about their niece Na’ama Issachar, who was detained in Moscow on her way back to Israel. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — The case of a young Israeli American backpacker arrested in a Moscow airport with a third of an ounce of hashish in her luggage and sentenced to more than seven years in prison reads like the plot of a complicated political thriller.

Geopolitical tensions, high-level diplomacy and an extradition order for an international hacker are all tied in up in the story of Na’ama Issachar, a 26 year-old detained on her way home to Israel after traveling and studying yoga in India. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, Issachar moved to Israel when she was 16, finished high school and served in the army. Like many young people, she decided to go backpacking after finishing her service.

She flew back via Russia because it was cheaper, said her mother, Yaffa, in an interview from the Russian capital on Sunday. As Issachar attempted to board her connecting flight on April 10, she was stopped by Russian authorities, who said they found drugs in her bag. 

“When Na’ama got to the gate and showed her boarding pass, she was asked to wait. Then a man approached and told her to go with him,’ ” Yaffa said. “She texted me a few minutes later telling me something was going on with her luggage, she said she didn’t think they would let her on the plane but told me not to worry.”

Lawyers also told Yaffa not to be concerned, saying — even after the first few days of Issachar’s detainment — the 26-year-old would just receive a slap on the wrist: a fine or, at worst, a few months under house arrest. Issachar has no previous convictions.

In a similar case this year, 19-year-old American student Audrey Lorber was arrested in a St. Petersburg airport with two-thirds of an ounce of cannabis in her luggage. A Moscow court found her guilty. Instead of a jail sentence, she received a fine equivalent to $230 and time served of just three to four weeks. 

For Issachar, though, there was no time served, no fine and no release to house arrest. A few weeks after her incarceration, she was slapped with the harsher charge of drug smuggling, something her lawyers said they had never seen before. 

“We couldn’t understand why she was being treated like this,” Yaffa said. She said the conditions of her daughter’s detention have been difficult, particularly because of the language barrier. She said she tried contacting U.S. government officials, congressmen and senators, even sending a pleading letter to President Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser, Jared Kushner.

Then, in August, after deciding to go public with Issachar’s ordeal, the family said they were contacted by a friend of Aleksey Burkov, a Russian IT specialist arrested in Israel in 2015. There is little information on Burkov’s case, but news reports in Israel and Russia say the United States issued an Interpol warrant for him on charges relating to cyberattacks and computer network fraud.

Israeli daily Haaretz wrote Sunday that he was indicted in Virginia in 2015 on four counts of fraud and a year later on additional charges of identity theft, money laundering and illegally accessing a computer.

A story posted on the Russian news website RT said Burkov was an IT freelancer from St. Petersburg. It said “he was on holiday with his girlfriend in Israel in 2015 when he was hijacked and brought into custody as he was departing Israel, which he says is a standard U.S. scheme.”

The report also said it was Burkov’s family that had come up with the idea of a prisoner swap — Burkov’s extradition to Russia in exchange for Issachar.

“I thought he was crazy at first,” Yaffa said. “The message was very threatening, telling me my daughter would only be released if Burkov was released by Israel. I couldn’t see how it was related.”

On Friday, as the Moscow court passed down a sentence of 7½ years on Issachar, Israeli media reported that the Russians had linked Issachar’s fate to that of Burkov, requesting the hacker be returned to Russia in exchange for Issachar’s release.

Burkov’s extradition to the United States, however, has already been approved by Israel’s Supreme Court. It is waiting a final green light from Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana. On Sunday, the minister told Israeli television that a final decision on Burkov’s extradition would be made in the coming days or weeks.

He said he hoped U.S. authorities would intervene on Issachar’s behalf.

“I suppose the Americans have a vested interest that Na’ama not sit in Russian prison, and I hope and believe there will be interference on their part, too,” Ohana told Israel’s Channel 12 News.

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Days after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria that has left some Israelis wondering about American loyalties in the region, Issachar’s case appears caught up in high-level diplomacy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Issachar’s punishment as “disproportionate.” In a statement Friday, he said it did “not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to her.”

Netanyahu is under pressure at home to bring Issachar back, especially after touting his close ties with both the Russian and American presidents during the recent national election.

He said he had raised the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month when the two leaders met in Sochi, Russia, and again last week in a telephone conversation, asking that her sentence be commuted and the terms of her detention eased.

“Israel will continue to make every effort with the Russian authorities in order to bring about Naama Issachar’s release and return her to her family,” he said. “I hope the effort will bear fruit.”

Netanyahu made no mention of whether the Israelis were also working with U.S. authorities on the matter. A request for a response from the State Department by The Washington Post was unanswered Sunday.

Yaffa said her daughter’s lawyers were planning to appeal the sentence in a hearing Monday. She told The Post that she had spoken to Netanyahu and was hopeful that diplomatic efforts would free her daughter.

“I just want to take her home,” she said.

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