The freed former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky vowed yesterday to do all he can to ensure the release of other political prisoners in Russia.
The former oil tycoon spent ten years in jail on what the West considers trumped-up political charges by president Vladimir Putin’s government.
He was pardoned on Friday by Mr Putin and immediately flew in a private jet to Berlin, where he spoke at a tumultuous news conference near Checkpoint Charlie, one of the main crossing points from East Berlin to West during the Cold War.
The 50-year-old appeared composed at his first public appearance since his release, saying he should not be viewed as a symbol that there are no more political prisoners in Russia.
He added that he would do “all I can do” to ensure the release of others.
“The time that is left for me is time I would like to devote to the activity of paying back my debts to the people … and by that I mean the people who are still in prison,” he said.
However, Mr Khodorkovsky said he would not be “involved in the struggle for power” in Russia.
Mr Khodorkovsky, his shaven prison haircut contrasting with a formal business suit, said he first heard that he could be freed on 12 November, when his lawyers told him that former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher “said Mr Putin will not make admission of guilt a condition of my release”.
The veteran German diplomat, whom he repeatedly thanked, had worked for years behind the scenes on his case.
At 2am on Friday, he said, the commander of the prison colony in northwest Russia where he was being held “woke me up and said I was going home”.
Only later did he find out “that the trip was meant to end in Berlin,” Mr Khodorkovsky added.
He said the media and Western politicians had played a big role in securing his release by drawing constant attention to his case, and that helped to keep his spirits up.
“The most important thing for a prison inmate is hope,” he said.
Asked whether he held any ill feelings toward Mr Putin, Mr Khodorkovsky said because his family had not been made to suffer while he was in prison he preferred to take a “pragmatic” approach, though he remains sharply at odds with Mr Putin’s government.
“Obviously there are things I don’t like,” he said. “There are rules that need changing.”
Mr Khodorkovsky confirmed reports in the German media that he would not seek a leading role in the political opposition against Mr Putin, nor sponsor the opposition.
Before his imprisonment, he had publicly challenged Mr Putin’s dominance by funding opposition parties and was also believed at the time to have personal political ambitions.
Asked whether he planned to take legal action to reclaim the assets of his dismantled Yukos oil company or return to business in some other way, he demurred.
“My financial situation doesn’t require me to work just to earn some more money,” he said. “I think as part of my career in business I’ve achieved virtually everything I’ve wanted to achieve.”
There has been speculation over what remains of the vast fortune that once made him Russia’s richest man. Mr Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2003 for tax evasion and money- laundering in cases that were widely criticised as revenge for his political activities.
He faced a second trial and prison sentence in 2010 and was not due to be released from prison until next August.
Asked about his next move, Mr Khodorkovsky said he was not sure but that he had a one-year visa for Germany.
“For the time being, my family matters are the most important,” he said.
A return to Russia is not imminent because of the possibility that he could be charged again, said Mr Khodorkovsky.
“At the moment, if I were to go back to Russia, I may not be allowed to leave the country again,” he said.