Putin to pardon jailed tycoon Khodorkovsky

Businessman who has spent over 10 years behind bars made appeal for clemency, says president

Russia's president Vladimir Putin is to pardon the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allowing Russia's most famous prisoner to walk free after more than 10 years in prison.

Mr Putin said yesterday he would sign a decree ordering Khodorkovsky’s release after receiving a letter from the ex-tycoon appealing for clemency on humanitarian grounds.

“He has already been in detention for more than 10 years. It’s a serious term and he is referring to humanitarian circumstances as his mother is ill,” said Mr Putin.

None of Khodorkovsky’s associates were able to confirm that he had appealed for a pardon.


Murky privatisations
Khodorkovsky was one of a small group of Russian businessmen who used close contacts with the government to gain control of huge natural resource assets during murky privatisations in the 1990s that followed the demise of the Soviet Union.

After Mr Putin came to power in 2000, Khodorkovsky fell from favour for criticising the Kremlin’s anti-liberal policies and state moves to claw back control of Russian oil resources and infrastructure.

At two separate trials in 2005 and 2010 Khodorkovsky was convicted of massive fraud and tax evasion and of stealing oil from Yukos, the oil company he founded. He is serving concurrent sentences that expire in August next year.

Attitudes in Russia to Khodorkovsky are mixed. Many Russians resent the wealth of the oligarchy and believe he deserves tough punishment for robbing the nation’s wealth. Others see the ex-tycoon as a martyr and the country’s longest-serving political prisoner.

Mr Putin revealed plans to pardon Khodorkovsky a day after the Russian parliament approved an amnesty that will allow for the early release of thousands of prisoners.

Among those in line for a reprieve are two members of the Pussy Riot punk band serving two-year sentences for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral last year. Thirty Greenpeace activists awaiting trial for their protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic in September are also in line for a reprieve, said Mr Putin.

In a dramatic development, three of the defendants in the so called “Bolotnaya case” who are on trial for participating in violence that erupted at an anti-government rally last year, were set free in a Moscow court room yesterday.

Mr Putin said he had never before received an appeal for pardon from Khodorkovsky, who has repeatedly claimed he was convicted on trumped-up charges and would likely be in jail for life.

An appeal for pardon risks being interpreted as an admission of guilt. Marina Khodorkovsky, mother of the jailed ex-tycoon, defended her son but said she had not been told he planned to seek clemency.

“He needs to be released. His children and even grandchildren grew up without him. Only someone who spent 10 years in prison can judge his decisions,” she told Interfax.

Many observers believe that the Khodorkovsky pardon and wider prison amnesty reflect a Kremlin campaign to lessen international criticism before Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February.

Grown in confidence
Several international statesmen, including US president Barack Obama, have announced in the last few weeks that they will not attend the games.

Others say that Mr Putin, who was named the world's most powerful person by Forbes magazine in October, has grown confident enough even to release his oldest political foe.