A US-Israeli backpacker who spent nine months in a Russian prison on drug smuggling charges walked free on Thursday after she was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin in what has been perceived as a major domestic win for the Israeli prime minister gearing up for a fresh election.
American-born Naama Issachar, 26, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport last April after border officers found 10 grams of hashish in her checked luggage. Ms Issachar, who made a layover in Moscow on her way back to Israel from holiday in India, was put on trial and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison last October despite the fact that she was in the transit zone all the time and had no access to her bag.
The woman’s plight caused uproar in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a fresh general election in March, has taken up her case and petitioned President Putin for her release.
He arranged for the Russian leader to meet the mother of the 26-year old in Jerusalem during his visit last week, when Mr Putin made a public promise to release the backpacker.
President Putin late on Wednesday formally pardoned Ms Issachar on “humanitarian grounds,” the Kremlin said, and Russian prison authorities confirmed on Thursday that Ms Issachar had been released.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was charged in a criminal corruption case just hours before US President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East plan on Tuesday, made a stopover in Moscow on his way back from Washington on Thursday to thank Mr Putin for pardoning the Israeli woman, saying that people of Israel are “touched by this.”
Mr Netanyahu was expected to bring Ms Issachar with him on his plane back to Israel later on Thursday.
President Putin asked Mr Netanyahu at their televised meeting at the Kremlin to send his “best wishes to her and her mum,” adding that Ms Issachar was “lucky” that she did not formally cross the Russian border, which runs counter to the prosecution’s arguments that ultimately landed her in prison.
The backpacker’s release, which allowed Mr Netanyahu to showcase his special relations with Mr Putin, is a major coup for the right-wing prime minister who will be fighting for his political survival against his centrist rival Benny Gantz at the polls on 2 March.
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