Naama’s mother to Putin: Please send my daughter home

‘Someone close to Trump knows the story, but has not responded,’ mother of imprisoned Israeli-American tells ‘Post’

Yaffa and Naama Issachar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaffa and Naama Issachar
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The fate of American-Israeli yoga teacher Naama Issachar, allegedly tied to a diplomatic triangle, now appears to rest solely in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, her mother Yaffa told The Jerusalem Post.
It is believed that only Putin can release the 26-year-old from serving her seven-and-a-half year sentence in a Russian jail on charges of drug smuggling, after nine grams of cannabis were found in her checked luggage while she was in transit from India to Tel Aviv in April.
“So from here [Russia] and from your newspaper, I am begging President Putin to send her home,” Yaffa said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “She doesn’t belong in jail. She is a good person, with a clean background. She doesn’t even have a driving or a parking ticket. She is a young girl that just wants to go home.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin have personally appealed to Putin to pardon Naama. It is widely presumed that she received a heavy sentence to pressure Israel to release Russian Internet hacker Alexei Burkov, arrested in 2015 and slated to be extradited to the US. Israel has initially said it could not halt his extradition, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana is now weighing whether to grant the extradition request.
The story garnered little public attention when Naama was first arrested, on what seemed to be standard drug-related charges. But it exploded into a case of a potential diplomatic kidnapping, when news of its links to Burkov were revealed a day prior to her sentencing.
After the arrest, Yaffa’s appeals to Israel and the US bore very little results. This included personally “knocking on the doors” of all the Israeli ministers, Yaffa said, adding that “they didn’t want to listen to me.”
But she didn’t stop there.
“At the US Embassy, they told me the door is open,” said Yaffa. But each time she arrived, they never seemed to have any answers with regard to the case, and were relying on information from Washington.
“I sent letters to senators in the States,” Yaffa said. “A person that I cannot mention his name, he is very high, he is very close to Trump — he got the story two months ago. I know he got it. Nobody did anything.”
Neither Naama, her attorneys or her family knew of the connection to the Burkov case.
“Now [that the story has] exploded in such a way, it is very hard,” said Yaffa, who until April was a kindergarten teacher in Rehovot. She left her normal day-to-day life and temporarily relocated to Russia upon her daughter’s arrest.
It’s a country that neither she nor her daughter had any connection with. The Issachar family, originally from Israel, is strongly connected however to the US. They all hold citizenship and have lived there for many years.
Naama was born in Staten Island. She grew up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and attended Fair Lawn High School through her sophomore year.
Knowing she wanted to enter the IDF, Naama swayed her mother to return with her to Israel so she could finish high school there and enter the army from an Israeli setting and not as a de facto new immigrant.
Like many young Israelis, Naama did a post-army trip, heading to South America and to India, where she became enamored with yoga and the philosophy of meditation.
Upon her return, Naama moved to Tel Aviv and began teaching yoga. In January, she went on a three-month trip to India with three friends and her older sister. In April, they all left India. Her sister returned to the US, where she lives, and the friends took a direct flight back to Israel.
To save $250, Naama opted for a flight with a five-hour layover in Moscow. As she waited, she chatted on and off with her mother who was already busy cooking her daughter’s favorite foods to celebrate her return.
“She told me what she wanted me to make,” Yaffa said. “It was Election Day, she asked me my opinion on the elections. We kept talking back and forth. I told her to call me when she was on the plane.”
But Naama was pulled aside as she handed over her boarding pass and was never allowed to board the flight.
Yaffa recalled that Naama called her and said, ‘Mummy do not worry. I am not on the plane. They want to check something in my luggage.”
The Russian authorities held her in the airport for 14 to 16 hours, said Yaffa, explaining that she was in touch with her daughter throughout that time. From the start, Naama told them, she did not know how the cannabis got into her bag. When they took Naama’s passport, Yaffa became alarmed and notified both the US and Israeli embassies.
THE POSSIBILITY that her daughter is a diplomatic hostage seems plausible to Yaffa, because it answered so many questions.
All these months, nothing went as it should have, Yaffa said. The Russians kept Naama in jail, instead of putting her under house arrest. They did this in spite of the offers of monetary guarantees, assurances from the Israeli Embassy and Naama’s willingness to give up her passport, Yaffa said.
Throughout the process, Yaffa wondered, “Why is this going nowhere?”
“Now I see the clear picture,” Yaffa said.
Early on, the Russian attorney representing Naama also had the impression that it was politics, but believed it was linked to her dual nationality, Yaffa explained.
“I understand now that they check the bags on every plane that comes from India or from Amsterdam,” Yaffa said. Typically what follows is a month or two of house arrest, fines and deportation.
But two weeks after Naama’s arrest, a second charge of drug smuggling was added, a move that made the case much more serious.
“My lawyer said, ‘I went back 10 years in Moscow and all of Russia – there has not been a case like hers,’” Yaffa recalled him saying, particularly when one takes into account the amount of cannabis and where they found it.
Yaffa cited an example of a young American woman from New York who was picked up in Russia with 19 grams of cannabis, asked to pay a fine of $350 and deported. “That was only a month ago,” she said.
Rumors regarding the Burkov link started only on October 10, one day before Naama’s sentencing. That whole week, Yaffa said, she was in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office asking if there was anything she should know.
“They said, ‘No, we are doing everything for Naama,’” Yaffa recalled.
Once she knew about Burkov, Yaffa said, it was clear her daughter would be sentenced and there was no chance of her release.
Until then, Naama had hoped that once she told her story to the judge, she would be released. It seemed to her illogical to be charged with smuggling in a situation where she had no intention of entering Russia.
In court prior to the sentencing, Yaffa was able to briefly speak with her daughter to warn her that she was unlikely to be freed, given that the case now seemed to be about the relations between Israel and Russia and had nothing to do with her daughter’s actions.
This “is something going on between Russia and Israel. It’s politics and you are probably going to get sentenced,” Yaffa recalled telling Naama. Her daughter “was shaking and pale.”
Naama has already learned Russian in jail, so she understood immediately, before her mother, that she had been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years.
“I told [Naama] ‘Listen. It doesn’t matter if it is one year or 10. It is not something that you did and you have to be punished for. It is something [larger]. Netanyahu promised me that he is going to do everything he can,’” Yaffa recalled.
That was on Friday. But Yaffa had to wait until Monday before she could substantively meet with her daughter to explain to her more about the politics behind the case.
The conditions in which she has been held have been difficult, said Yaffa. Naama is in a cell with three other women, “so you can imagine how small the room is.”
Yaffa has been providing Naama with the supplies she needs in jail, including food. “She doesn’t get any fruits or vegetables, or anything,” Yaffa said.
She wasn’t allowed to give Naama a cake on her birthday on October 3, so she gave her chocolate instead.
Each visit has involved an enormous amount of bureaucracy. For months, Yaffa had to go in person to the prosecutor’s office to request permission, and then receive an additional approval from the jail. She also had to coordinate to bring an interpreter with her to help her enter the jail, since she does not know any Russian.
At one point, Yaffa was denied access to her daughter for six weeks. Now, when she wants to see her daughter, Yaffa must receive permission from a judge.
Naama’s friends and family have rallied behind her.
A Facebook page has been opened in solidarity with her, called #WeWantNaama. There are also two online petitions calling for her release.
On Saturday, two concurrent protests will be held demanding Naama’s release, one at 8:30 p.m. in Habima Square in Tel Aviv and the other in New York at 1 p.m. in front of the Russian Consulate.
Naama’s attorney plans to appeal the verdict, but procedurally it could take a while.
“So I am putting my hopes on what is going to be between Israel and Russia,” Yaffa said.