Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin described as his “archrival,” was released from prison in northwestern Russia yesterday after being pardoned by the Russian president, Khodorkovsky’s lawyer said.
Vadim Klyuvgant gave no details about the release or the latest whereabouts of Khodorkovsky, who had been in jail for more than 10 years and was seen by Kremlin critics as a political prisoner.
“He has left the [prison] colony. That’s all I can say,” Klyuvgant told reporters by telephone.
Khodorkovsky has spent the past 10 years in prison on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. His arrest in 2003 and the subsequent prosecution have been widely considered to be Putin’s retribution for Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions.
Putin first spoke about pardon after a news conference on Thursday, saying that Khodorkovsky has applied for the pardon because his mother’s health is deteriorating. The Kremlin’s Web site published a decree yesterday morning saying that Putin was “guided by the principles of humanity” when he decided to pardon Khodorkovsky.
The development — along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship — appears aimed at easing international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s pet project.
The former head of Yukos oil company, once Russia’s richest man, repeatedly said he would not ask for a pardon because it would be tantamount to admitting guilt.
The Kommersant broadsheet, citing unnamed sources, said yesterday that Khodorkovsky had made the decision to seek a pardon after a recent meeting with representatives of Russia’s security services, who had raised the menace of a third trial against him.
Members of the security services met with Khodorkovsky over the past several days, told him the health of his cancer-stricken mother, Marina, 79, was worsening and warned him about a possible third criminal case against him.
“This conversation, which was conducted without lawyers, forced Mikhail Khodorkovsky to turn to the president,” the newspaper said. Economists and political analysts put the announcement down to the Kremlin’s bid to improve its dismal rights record and international image ahead of the Winter Olympic Games that Russia is hosting in Sochi in February.
Khodorkovsky had been due to be released in August next year, but Russian prosecutors earlier this month raised the threat of a third trial for the former tycoon on money laundering charges. Putin told reporters on Thursday that he saw no prospects for the third case.
Economists and political analysts said that while Khodorkovsky’s imminent release was a watershed moment, it would not dramatically change Russia’s battered investment climate or international image.
“It is a very important signal,” said prominent economist Sergei Guriev, who co-authored a critical report on Khodorkovsky’s second conviction in 2010.
“In and of itself it will not change anything, but it will give hope to investors,” Guriev told reporters in e-mailed comments. However, he said Putin’s promise to release Khodorkovsky was not enough to make him return to Russia.
Earlier this year, Guriev had fled to France after coming under pressure from investigators for his role in the Khodorkovsky report.