Mikhail Khodorkovsky waving from the defendant’s cage in a Moscow courtroom, on November 2, 2010
Russia’s most famous prisoner and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Friday walked out of jail after spending more than 10 years behind bars, following a surprise pardon by President Vladimir Putin.
Putin pardoned Russia’s former richest man a day after stunning the country on Thursday by saying the ex-tycoon asked for clemency on humanitarian grounds as his mother was ill.
“Guided by humanitarian principles, I decree that Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky… should be pardoned and freed from any further punishment in the form of imprisonment,” said the decree signed by Putin and published by the Kremlin.
Less than three hours later his lawyers confirmed that Khodorkovsky, 50, had walked out of his prison colony in the town of Segezha in the Karelia region of northwestern Russia.
“The head of prison camp has officially informed Khodorkovsky’s lawyers that he has been freed and left the prison camp,” a spokesperson for Khodorkovsky said in a statement.
A source close the Khodorkovsky family told AFP that he was expected in Moscow later in the day, possibly at his parents’ home, adding that his wife Inna was currently in Switzerland.
Kremlin-funded RT television cited staff at the airport in the northwestern city of Petrozavodsk as saying that Khodorkovsky was flying by helicopter to Saint Petersburg.
Khodorkovsky’s 79-year-old mother Marina, who was caught off guard by Putin’s announcement, said she was still trying to fathom what was happening.
“It has not sunk in yet,” Marina Khodorkovskaya said in remarks broadcast on state television. Speaking in a shaky voice, she said she was taking sedatives to calm her nerves.
What role Khodorkovsky will play in Russia after his release is unclear, but it appears certain that Putin would never had allowed his freedom if he was seen as a threat.
“God, he had mercy,” exclaimed mass-circulation newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in a banner headline.
‘Secret services met Khodorkovsky’
Khodorkovsky had been due to be released in August 2014 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.
The circumstances of the pardon also remained murky.
The former chief of the Yukos oil company had repeatedly said he would not ask Putin for a pardon because it would be tantamount to admitting guilt.
The Kommersant broadsheet, citing unnamed sources, said on Friday Khodorkovsky had decided 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, told him the health of his cancer-striken mother was worsening and warned him about a possible third criminal case against him.
“It would be interesting to understand what he feels right now,” Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on his blog, hailing how he had carried “himself with such astonishing dignity all these 10 years.”
‘Putin’s trump card’
Economists and political analysts put the release down to 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.
While Khodorkovsky’s release was a watershed moment, it would not dramatically change Russia’s battered investment climate or international image, they added.
“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 AFP in emailed comments.
Earlier this year, Guriev had fled to France after coming under pressure from investigators for his role in the Khodorkovsky report.
The Eurasia Group consultancy said the former tycoon’s release was a “charm offensive” ahead of the Sochi Olympics amid reports that heads of major states like Barack Obama of the United States and France’s Francois Hollande will not be in attendance.
Vedomosti business daily compared the announcement to “a trump card” Putin pulled out of his sleeve at a critical moment.
“Khodorkovsky personally no longer presents a threat to the system,” it said, noting that his release would not “heal the wounds inflicted on the economy and society 10 years ago.”
Supporters have said that Khodorkovsky had been thrown into jail and found guilty in two separate trials for daring to finance opposition to the Russian strongman.
He was snatched off his corporate plane in 2003 soon after Putin warned oligarchs against meddling in politics. He has been held in detention ever since.
Khodorkovsky was convicted of embezzlement in a second trial in 2010 and had been due for release in August. He and his business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005. Lebedev’s lawyers have said their client may also seek a pardon.