2020-04-10 18:48:00

Moscow denies reports of its agreement with Israel to trade Alexander Metochion for Issachar's pardon

Moscow, April 10, Interfax - The Russian Foreign Ministry described as speculations reports that Russia and Israel had reached an agreement to trade the Alexander Metochion in Jerusalem for the pardon of the Israeli citizen Naama Issachar.

"On April 5, a lawsuit against the state of Israel and the Russian Federation has been lodged with the Jerusalem's District Court on behalf of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in the Holy Land headed by N. Hoffmann-Worontsow and unlawfully occupying the Alexander Metochion," the ministry said.

"The lawsuit also contains unsubstantiated references to the Israeli media reports that Russia and Israel had allegedly reached an agreement to trade 'the transfer' of this religious facility for the pardon of Israeli citizen Issachar convicted in Russia for drug smuggling. We do not deem it necessary to comment on such speculations, responsibility for which rests with those who invented them," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a commentary published on its official website.

"The court ruled that the defendants must present their conclusions not later than on April 14, 2020, and the Israeli Justice Ministry 'freeze' re-registration [of property] until further notice," the commentary said.

"A hearing involving all parties will be scheduled after court receives the defendants' comments, and following it, the court is to make a decision on this lawsuit, whether to start its consideration on the merits or dismiss it," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

"The Russian side is drafting its comments of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society's claim and will present it to the court in conformity with the Israeli law soon. The Russian Federation will take all necessary measures to defend its property interests in Israel, including in relation to the Alexander Metochion," the ministry said.

The ministry said it believes Worontsow-Hoffmann's claim "is not backed by any authentic documents, which would have confirmed the right of the society he is heading to the Alexander Metochion."

The Alexander Metochion, an archeological and architectural complex, is located in the Old City of Jerusalem, right near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The land on which it is located was purchased by Russia in 1859.

The compound was built by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in 1896.

The controversy surrounding its ownership began after the revolution of 1917. In 1918, the head of the society, Prince Alexey Shirinsky-Shikhmatov, fled Russia, as most of the society's members did at that time. Shirinsky-Shikhmatov arrived in Berlin, and the society resumed operating there.

At present, two different organization of the same name - Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society - exist separately in Russia and in Germany. In 1992, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation approved a resolution on "the restoration of the historical name of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society." The Justice Ministry then recognized it as a successor to the Soviet Palestine Society and to the historical society.

The German society is led by Nikolay Worontsow-Hoffmann, the Russian one by Sergey Stepashin, a former head of the Accounts Chamber. Currently, the metochion is occupied by Worontsow-Hoffmann's organization, which is registered in Munich. Stepashin's organization is contesting the ownership of the metochion. According to Worontsow-Hoffmann, before they left Palestine in 1948, the British authorities confirmed the society's right to all related property in the Holy Land.

Issachar, 25, who has United States and Israeli citizenship, was detained in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in April 2019. She was changing planes in Moscow on her way from Delhi to Tel Aviv when security services detected about 10 grams of hashish in her checked baggage.

On October 11, 2019, the Moscow region's Khimki City Court found Issachar guilty of smuggling a considerable quantity of drugs and illegal possession of narcotic substances and sentenced her to seven years and six months in a penitentiary. The Moscow Regional Court upheld Issachar's conviction on December 19, 2019.

Issachar denies involvement in drug smuggling and possession. She told the Moscow Regional Court that she had not bought the hashish and was unaware of having the drug in her bag. Issachar also said that her earlier "admission" of drugs possession was a result of poor translation and that, in fact, she had only agreed about the fact that the drugs were found in her backpack.

The Israeli president and prime minister, as well as Issachar's mother, have asked Putin to pardon Naama. Issachar later personally petitioned to be pardoned.

Putin pardoned the Israeli citizen on January 29.

Issachar was released from custody on January 30 and departed for her home country later that day together with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister's wife Sara, and Issachar's mother Yaffa.