Israeli Naama Issachar’s Russian prison sentence for ‘smuggling’ hashish has been upheld. Here’s what happened in the courtroom.
Naama Issachar, an Israeli citizen, was sentenced to seven and a half years in a Russian prison for allegedly attempting to smuggle 9.6 grams of cannabis into the country. She was on a layover between India and Israel when a police dog signaled at her luggage, which was not in her possession and was set to be claimed only when she arrived in Tel Aviv. Russian officials offered to exchange Issachar for Alexey Burkov, a Russian hacker who was being held in Israel pending extradition to the United States, but those negotiations were unsuccessful. On December 19, a hearing took place to determine whether Issachar’s sentence would be overturned. Kristina Safonova reported from the courtroom.
25-year-old Naama Issachar is sitting in a glass cell. Her dark eyes stand out against her unusually pale face. About 50 people have arrived at the Moscow Regional Court to hear the appellate ruling in her case. From time to time, Naama turns to her family and smiles. When she turns away, she tries her best to wipe away tears unnoticed. Supporters repeat to her in Hebrew that her entire case is petty political maneuvering, that it is beneath her, and that she will soon be free.
For the umpteenth time, Issachar’s lawyers tell the court that their client has been deprived of her due process rights throughout the case, primarily because of substandard translations from Russian to English and back as well as a lack of access to interpreters. This time, by her legal team’s request, the young Israeli has two interpreters with her. One is sitting next to the glass enclosure and speaking to her through a microphone. The second is standing by the door, barely participating in the proceedings.
The judge says, “Now let’s listen to her. Let’s have her say how it really happened.”
Issachar responds, “I did not buy the hashish, I didn’t take it from anyone, and I didn’t put it in my bag. When the drug was found in my luggage, I thought that this fact alone was enough to find me guilty of a crime.” She explains that her partial admission of guilt in the case was based on this misconception and that she had only confessed to the fact that the substance was found in her checked luggage.
Her attorneys then argue, “Naama Issachar did not cross the border and had no intention of doing so. She had no access to her luggage. Her right to a defense was violated. The lower court’s conclusions are incorrect, and they contradict both the evidence and the law. There is a large number of procedural violations in the case. The evidence was gathered illegally and cannot be admissible in court. The sentenced must be overturned, and Naama must be freed.”
The prosecutor reads a prewritten speech: “All the evidence that lies at the root of these allegations was gathered in accordance with the law. Naama Issachar’s right to a defense has not been violated. The arguments put forward by the defense and Naama Issachar […] are aimed at preventing the latter from facing criminal liability for her actions. The sentence is legal and well-founded and should not be overturned.”
Attorney Vadim Klyuvgant responds, “The prosecutor doesn’t even know how to pronounce our defendant’s name correctly, but he nonetheless seems to know what it means to avoid liability. In reality, he’s the one who’s avoiding his own responsibilities. His responsibility is to prove the allegations.”
The prosecutor smiles.
Naama gives her closing statement: “I beg the judges to understand that I am in prison for almost nine months, isolated from people who speak my language. This conviction will ruin my life over a crime I did not commit,” she says.
Her mother, Yaffa, has stood up to listen to her.
“I hope the judges will bring justice to light. We will celebrate Hanukkah together and light the first candle in Israel,” Naama concluded.
The judges leave the courtroom to confer. When they come back, the corresponding judge, Yelena Vorontsova, reads aloud in a barely audible voice: “The sentence will be left unaltered.” “Denied,” Naama’s interpreter says to her. For a moment, she is shocked, her eyes wide open. Her sister Liad cries, and her mother attempts to move toward the court’s chamber, but the bailiff keeps her away. “One word!” she asks, but nobody gives her the floor.
On their way out of the courthouse, Issachar’s family members decline to speak to journalists for the first time since her case began. They rush toward an exit emblazoned with the words “Without wrath or bias.”
English version by Hilah Kohen