The next Naama Issachar? Russia hasn’t let Israeli consul visit citizen in prison

Revaz Raphael Shmertz is an Israeli citizen who's been denied consul visit by Russia for 10 months.

 Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen who has been for the last 10 months for unspecified real estate fraud in Russia.  (photo credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY)
Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen who has been for the last 10 months for unspecified real estate fraud in Russia.
(photo credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY)

The authorities in Russia will not permit Israeli consulate officials to visit Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen, who has been in prison for 10 months for real estate fraud that he says he did not commit.

In fact, Russia has not even officially informed Israel according to law that one of its citizens is in custody.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand on Sunday that Israel transfer ownership of the Alexander Courtyard, a Russian Orthodox church in Jerusalem’s Old City, to Russia, raises the question of whether Moscow plans to use Shmertz as a negotiating card.

Israel promised the church to Russia in 2020, as part of a deal to release Naama Issachar, an Israeli arrested on drug charges.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that “unfortunately, since [Shmertz] was arrested, the consul has not been authorized to enter the prison to visit him.”

 The wife and daugher of Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen imprisoned in Russia without consul visitations.  (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY) The wife and daugher of Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen imprisoned in Russia without consul visitations. (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY)

Shmertz, 41, was born in Georgia,and has a degree in electrical engineering from the Technion. He moved to Russia to work in 2007 and married the following year. He has five children ranging in age from one to 13.

In June of last year, Shmertz, who was working in blockchain technology, traveled to Miami for a Bitcoin conference and was planning to have the rest of his family fly to Florida, to where they were considering emigrating.

On June 7, following a death in his wife’s family, Shmertz returned to Moscow. The next morning there was a knock on his door at 6 a.m. It was the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, with a search warrant.

 Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen who has been for the last 10 months for unspecified real estate fraud in Russia.  (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY) Revaz Raphael Shmertz, an Israeli citizen who has been for the last 10 months for unspecified real estate fraud in Russia. (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY)

Agents confiscated his laptop, phone and many documents and took him to a police station, a family source said.

Since then, Shmertz has been in custody for allegedly taking part in a 2014 attempt to illegally take hold of commercial real estate worth nearly 100 million rubles belonging to a company called Vorsma LLC, which has ties to the Russian Defense Ministry. The charge of large-scale fraud carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

According to sources close to him, Shmertz says that the company he worked for bought the land for about $10 million because the previous owners had legal troubles, but even after the funds were transferred, his company was unable to acquire the deed to the land or to access it.

The company filed a complaint that it had been the victim of a scam. The family that sold the real estate fled Russia in 2015. Several other people involved in the case are in custody, and Shmertz says he does not know any of them.

Valery Kulish, who met Shmertz in prison where he was serving a sentence for fraud, accused him of further counts of embezzlement and was soon after released to house arrest.

In October 2021, Kulish fell to his death out of a fourth-floor window of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Moscow.

Shmertz pleaded not guilty. His lawyer repeatedly appealed for his release or for him to be put under house arrest, arguing that he has no criminal background and cannot leave Russia because the authorities have his passport.

Former chief rabbi of Russia Adolf Shayevich vouched in court for Shmertz, an observant Jew who attended prayers and studied Torah daily before his imprisonment. The appeals were rejected, most recently on April 7; Russian courts have a 99% conviction rate.

Shmertz’s children were not allowed into the courtroom to see their father this month, nor have they been permitted to visit him in prison. His wife was able to visit three times in 10 months. The family has been left without its sole breadwinner.

 The son of Revaz Raphael Shmertz protesting w a sign that says ''freedom for my father.'' (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY) The son of Revaz Raphael Shmertz protesting w a sign that says ''freedom for my father.'' (credit: SHMERTZ FAMILY)

People who Shmertz does not know have approached him in prison and asked how his wife and children are doing, mentioning them by name, something that he views as a threat.

His lawyer, Igor Zuber, also filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights for illegal detention, including being detained for over 48 hours without a court order. Zuber also argued that his rights have been violated repeatedly, and that he was near starvation after not being provided with kosher food.

As of April, Shmertz was receiving kosher food, Chabad emissaries had been allowed to visit him and he could attend a prison synagogue.

“At first, people said we should not go public, because it would be worse and they will make up new charges,” the source close to Shmertz said, “but after five to six months, we went public anyway.”

“Revaz will clear his name,” the source said in early April. “My complaint to the European Court of Human Rights will no doubt prove his innocence. He is invested in tech companies all over the world, in Hong Kong, Israel, India and the US – it is important to him to clear his name.”

Shmertz’s family expressed hope that Israel can help him, as they have helped many other Israelis who were wrongfully imprisoned.

“Israel is his only hope,” the source said.

“If Israel doesn’t intervene, the Russian authorities will see it as an authorization, as an agreement to do whatever they want with our citizens,” Shmertz’s mother, Lianna, told Israel Hayom in February.

“Our country knows how to throw its weight around to help Israelis who are victims of injustice,” she said. “Revaz did not do anything illegal. He is an exemplary man, straight as a ruler.... I beg all the authorities to help and save him.”