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Israel, Russia, US in diplomatic standoff over 9.5 grams of marijuana

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  • A 26-year-old American-Israeli woman who was arrested at a Moscow airport with nine and a half grams of marijuana in April was sentenced on Friday to seven and a half years of prison in Russia on drug smuggling charges.
  • Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has argued for Naama Issachar’s release, but her case is tied up in an ongoing diplomatic dispute between Russia, Israel, and the US.
  • Russia is attempting to secure the release of an IT specialist, Aleksey Burkov, who was wanted in the US on charges of hacking and credit card fraud and was approved for extradition to the US by Israel’s Supreme Court in August after his arrest in an Israeli airport in December 2015.
  • CNN reports that Burkov’s family has proposed a prisoner swap with Issachar and that Netanyahu has suggested there is interest in that option, as Burkov “is subject to extradition.”
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A 26-year-old American-Israeli woman caught between diplomatic interests outside of her control is now facing seven and a half years in prison for attempting to smuggle nine and a half grams of marijuana through a Moscow airport.

Supporters have rallied online for Naama Issachar, who was stopped in Moscow in April while flying from India to Israel. But Russian authorities appear to be using Issachar as a form of collateral in a different diplomatic dispute involving Israel and the US. Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu has advocated for Issachar’s release but discouraged the Russian proposal of a prisoner swap.

The prisoner in question is a Russian IT specialist named Aleksey Burkov who was arrested in December 2015 at an Israel airport. He is wanted in the US on charges of hacking and credit card fraud, and Israel’s Supreme Court approved the US extradition request in August.

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A Facebook group called #WeWantNaama has rallied over 1,700 supporters for Issachar.

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In a statement, Netanyahu said Issachar’s sentence “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed.” The Israeli president also said he discussed the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, at a meeting in Sochi.

CNN reported that Burkov’s family has raised the possibility of a prisoner swap with Issachar on Russian state TV. Netanyahu seemed to express interest in that possibility, stating that Israel’s judicial authorities have made it “unequivocally clear that there is no possibility of preventing the extradition of Burkov following the Supreme Court ruling that he is subject to extradition.”

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While the Israeli Supreme Court has approved the US extradition request for Burkov, Russia has also submitted its own extradition request for the IT specialist, which has not been approved, according to Israeli media outlets. Burkov is currently being held in prison in Israel and could remain there while Israeli authorities argue for Issachar’s release.

Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana told Israeli media outlets that swapping the prisoners would create a “dangerous precedent.” Ohana said he will sign the order to extradite Burkov to the US “very soon.”

Issachar’s family members reportedly claim her prison conditions are worse than what other prisoners experience, and say she is not able to send or receive letters. In comparison to Issachar, a New York college student pleaded guilty to possessing just over 19 grams of medicinal marijuana in a Russian airport in September and was only required to pay a $235 fine.

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