RUSSIAN president Vladimir Putin is to pardon one of his best known opponents, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a decade in jail for alleged financial misdealings.
The move is being seen as a gesture to critics of the Russian president ahead of the Winter Olympics which Russia will host in Sochi next year.
Mr Putin made the announcement that he would free Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, after a long news conference yesterday in which he exuded confidence that he has reasserted his authority in the face of street protests.
He said two members of the Pussy Riot punk protest group would also be freed, but it was the U-turn on Khodorkovsky, due for release next August, that grabbed most attention.
Khodorkovsky, 50, fell out with Mr Putin a decade ago. His company, Yukos, was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands, following his arrest at gunpoint on an airport runway in Siberia on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2003.
He became a symbol of what investors say is the Kremlin’s abuse of the courts for political ends. The Kremlin denies this but Mr Putin has singled Khodorkovsky out for bitter personal attacks and ignored many calls for his release.
Yesterday, however, he said: “He has been in jail already more than ten years. This is a serious punishment.”
Saying Khodorkovsky’s mother was ill and that he had asked for clemency, he added: “I decided that with these circumstances in mind … a decree pardoning him will be signed.”
Lawyers for Khodorkovsky initially said he had not sought clemency but representatives later said they were trying to reach him in prison near the Arctic Circle to clarify matters.
An early release had not been expected and there had even been speculation that new charges might be brought against him, as they were before his sentence was extended in 2010 after a second trial for theft and money-laundering.
Khodorkovsky began dabbling in business as a Moscow student Communist leader under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms of the late 1980s. Still in his 30s, he emerged from the cut-throat chaos of the Soviet collapse as one of the wealthiest “oligarchs”.
His fall from grace after criticising Mr Putin, a former KGB officer, has long been held up as evidence of the weakness of the rule of law in post-Soviet Russia.
Supporters say Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005 to curb a political challenge, bring his oil assets under state control and warn other oligarchs not to cross Mr Putin.
In the eyes of critics at home and abroad, Khodorkovsky’s jailing is a significant stain on the record of Mr Putin, who was first elected president in 2000 and has not ruled out seeking another six-year term in 2018.
In televised comments three years ago, Mr Putin defended his imprisonment, spitting out a line uttered by a tough detective in a Soviet film: “A thief must be in jail”.
Noting the 150 years given to American fraudster Bernard Madoff, he quipped: “I think we are a lot more liberal.”
Mr Putin also suggested Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands, referring to a murder conviction against a former senior Yukos employee.
Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina, who will turn 80 next year and has had cancer, said by telephone: “I want to believe he [Mr Putin] will pardon him … I want to believe Putin is not totally lost.”