Russia’s former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Saturday was reunited with his oldest son and awaited his parents’ arrival in Berlin, after his stunning release from a Russian prison and lightning transfer to Germany.
A day after he was whisked away from his prison camp in a remote corner of northern Russia and put on a plane to Germany, Khodorkovsky was ensconced in one of the most luxurious hotels in the German capital.
The extraordinary operation that has stunned Russia and beyond was worked out behind the scenes with the German government and came about after negotiations between ex-German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and President Vladimir Putin.
“The eldest son of Mikhail Borisovich, Pavel, has already seen his dad,” a spokeswoman for Khodorkovsky, Olga Pispanen, said on Russian radio Echo of Moscow. “They are now together in Berlin.”
Khodorkovsky’s parents, Marina and Boris, were also expected in Germany to “finally see and hug him,” the spokeswoman added.
Released on Friday after 10 years behind bars, the father of four is “feeling well” and due to give his first news conference at midday GMT Sunday in Berlin.
‘Hard to survive joy’
Khodorkovsky’s 79-year-old mother, who has cancer, said she was taking sedatives to help her cope with her emotions.
“We survived grief but it is also apparently hard to survive joy,” Marina Khodorkovskaya said in comments broadcast on Russian state television on Saturday.
Putin shocked Russia on Thursday by saying that after a decade behind bars Khodorkovsky had turned to him for pardon on humanitarian grounds, citing his ailing mother’s ill health.
Less than 24 hours later, Khodorkovsky was granted the pardon, walked out of prison in a region near the border with Finland and flew to Germany on a private jet organised by Genscher.
Prison officials said Khodorkovsky had requested to fly to Germany, where his mother has undergone treatment before.
‘He is free to return’
The ruthless efficiency and lightning speed of his release led some observers to suggest that Russia’s most famous prisoner might have been forced into exile amid Kremlin’s attempts to touch up the country’s dismal rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics Games it is hosting in February.
But Putin’s spokesman dismissed such suggestions.
“He is free to return to Russia. Absolutely,” Dmitry Peskov told AFP on Saturday. He declined to say whether any conditions were attached to his release or whether he would be free to participate in politics.
Khodorkovsky, 50, wrote two letters to Putin: one a short legal letter, and the other a longer, personal missive, Peskov added.
In his first remarks since his release, Khodorkovsky said in a statement on Friday his request for a pardon did not amount to an admission of guilt.
“I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to embrace my loved ones,” he said, adding that “first and foremost, I am planning to repay my debts” to family, but without specifying his plans further.
‘The path of Solzhenitsyn’
With Russia and the world eagerly awaiting information over his future, a German analyst who helped with his transfer said Khodorkovsky would likely stay out of politics but could write books like dissident Soviet author Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
“He will possibly take a decision for himself to play some kind of a role in Europe’s public life,” Alexander Rahr, who acted as a translator for Genscher, told RTVi, a private Russian-language international channel.
“He could start the path of Solzhenitsyn,” he said, referring to the late Soviet dissident and Nobel-prize winning writer.
The Russian opposition magazine The New Times, for which Khodorkovsky wrote a column from prison, said the former tycoon called the editorial office to express gratitude for support.
“The most important today is Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,” the magazine quoted him as saying. “A lot lies ahead, the release of those hostages who still remain in prison, first and foremost Platon Lebedev,” he said, referring to his jailed business partner.
Genscher, who has met with Putin to negotiate Khodorkovsky’s release, picked him up at the airport in Berlin.
From the airport, Khodorkovsky was taken to Berlin’s luxury Adlon Hotel near the Brandenburg Gate from which Genscher was seen leaving on Friday evening.
About 20 cameramen and photographers as well as two TV vans were waiting for a possible glimpse of the former tycoon outside the hotel in sub-zero temperatures on Saturday morning.
Washington urges Russia to do more
The US Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the release but urged Moscow to “establish a transparent, independent, and reliable judicial system.”
Two jailed members of Pussy Riot band are expected to be freed under an amnesty that comes less than two months before the Winter Olympic Games start in Sochi in February.
Thirty Greenpeace activists, arrested on hooliganism charges after their protest against Arctic oil drilling, are also expected to escape prosecution.
Khodorkovsky’s release drew the curtain on the highest profile criminal case in Russia which has harmed the the investment climate and become a symbol for the persecution of Kremlin enemies.
Khodorkovsky had been due to be released in August 2014.
The Kommersant broadsheet, citing sources, said Khodorkovsky had decided to seek a pardon after a meeting with representatives of Russia’s security services, who had warned him about a possible third criminal case against him while reminding him of his ailing mother’s worsening health.