Putin upbeat on Israeli woman jailed in Russia


Jerusalem (AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday reassured the mother of an Israeli-American woman jailed in Russia on drugs charges, but stopped short of announcing her release.

Putin, among dozens of world leaders in Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, met Yaffa Issachar on the sideline of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official Jerusalem residence.

Putin said that he had sought to reassure the mother: "I told her, and I shall say it again: everything will be fine."

Her daughter Naama Issachar, 26, was arrested in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in April as she travelled from India to Israel. Russian authorities said they found nine grammes of cannabis in her checked luggage.

Last month she lost her appeal against a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence, which Netanyahu has described as disproportionate.

Putin said in Russian that "it's clear that Naama comes from a very good family".

He added that he was aware of the position of Netanyahu, who last week said he was optimistic that she would be released.

"All of that will be taken into account when a decision is being made," Putin said.

"Today Naama will be visited by the person responsible for ensuring human rights in Russia," he added.

Standing next to Putin, Netanyahu thanked the Russian leader for meeting the woman's mother.

"It was a very moving meeting," he said. "I thank you very much for the gesture, my friend, the president."

Netanyahu, who is facing an election on March 2, said last Thursday he was optimistic that Issachar would be freed after he spoke to Putin by phone.

The case has raised diplomatic tensions between Russia and Israel.

The Israeli foreign ministry has called the verdict "harsh and disproportionate" while President Reuven Rivlin has appealed to Putin's "mercy and compassion," seeking his intervention in the case.

Issachar's Russian lawyer, Vadim Kliouvgant, said Putin's comments appeared to indicate she would shortly be freed.

"Based on the words of the president, we are of course assuming that she will be released soon," Russian news agency Interfax quoted him as saying.

"Since the president has not specified how 'everything will be fine' one must be patient and wait."

Israeli media this week reported that Israel is willing to relinquish Alexander's Courtyard, a piece of property in Jerusalem that is highly symbolic to the Orthodox Church, in exchange for releasing Issachar.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, who attended Thursday's meeting, appeared on Wednesday to confirm a decision had been made on the Courtyard, calling it "a decision in line with the good relations between our countries."

He declined to tie it to any negotiations over Issachar's fate.