Naama Issachar, an American Israeli woman who spent 10 months in Russian prison for traveling with a small amount of cannabis, is breaking her silence for the first time as her case draws comparisons to WNBA star Brittney Griner.
“I know what (Griner is) going through,” Issachar, 28, said during an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Kate Snow. “I see the videos of her and I’m like, I know that courtroom.”
Issachar was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to 7½ years in prison after 0.3 ounces of marijuana was found in her luggage during a three-hour layover in Moscow while traveling from India to Israel. Issachar spent 10 months in prison before she was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2020.
Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has been detained in Russia since February after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner plead guilty to drug possession charges last week and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Issachar said Griner’s case is “probably the biggest reason” she’s sharing her story.
BRITTNEY GRINER pleads guilty to drug charges during appearance in Russian court
As Brittney Griner remains in Russian detention, Naama Issachar – whose story is eerily similar – is speaking out exclusively to @tvkatesnow.
During a 2019 layover in Moscow, Russian authorities found a third of an ounce of cannabis in her bag. She was held for 10 months. pic.twitter.com/z4z4YIzlJl
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) July 13, 2022
Like Griner, Issachar said she unknowingly traveled with the cannabis.
“It was never intentional. There was never a time that I knew it was in my bag,” Issachar told the outlet.
Issachar said her checked backpack was searched in front of her after she was pulled out of line at Sheremetyevo Airport while trying to board her flight home. The 28 year old said no translator was present and she was unsure of what was happening. Then, cannabis was discovered.
“I was like ‘where did that come from?’ There was no point that I was like, ‘Oh no, they found it,'” she recalled. “I knew it was probably bad, (but) I didn’t understand how bad it could be — that this is probably one of the worst countries for that.”
Issachar told NBC News that she was imprisoned in multiple Russian facilities over the course of 10 months, including the one Griner is believed to be held at. She said she shared a cell with up to 40 women at a time and was only allowed one hour of fresh air per day.
“They don’t provide you with anything besides food,” she said, adding that she never felt scared or abused. “They don’t provide you with toilet paper or feminine hygiene products.”
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Issachar — who grew up in New Jersey before moving to Israel as a teenager and serving as a sniper in the Israel army — said she believes she was “hands down” a political pawn used by Putin as tensions escalated between the Russian leader and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Griner was arrested and detained on Feb. 17 after Russia had invaded Ukraine and international tensions with the United States and the rest of the world escalated. Griner is due back in court Thursday after pleading guilty last week.
When asked what message she would send to Griner, Issachar said, “Try to smile. It helps even if it seems like it doesn’t. It really helps. I think there’s so much power in what we train our minds to think. There was something that I read, and it really changed everything that I thought. It was a quote that said if you can’t change anything else, you can choose to change your mind. It was so simple.”
Contributing: Chris Bumbaca
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner has support from woman jailed in Russia over cannabis