Putin pardons jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been freed on December 20th, bringing an end to more than a decade behind bars after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree pardoning him.

Putin made the surprise announcement on December 19th that he planned to pardon Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man. He said the pardon would be issued on humanitarian grounds, as Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya, is ill. Khodorkovsky had left the prison camp in northern Russia where he was serving his sentence, his lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said. He added that he has no further information on the details of his client's release.

Arrested for challenging the Kremlin
Khodorkovsky headed the country's largest oil company and was considered one of the richest men in Russia when he was arrested in 2003 and charged with tax evasion and theft. Supporters say his financial support for opposition parties upset the Kremlin and that his prosecution and conviction were politically motivated. According to them Khodorkovsky was arrested to punish him for political challenges to Putin, to gain control of his oil assets and to warn other tycoons to toe the line. In 2010, just a year before he was scheduled to be released, Khodorkovsky was convicted and sentenced to a second prison term for money laundering and embezzlement. He was set to be released in August 2014.

Analysts say that when Putin came to power in 2000, he offered an informal deal to Russia's oligarchs: they could keep their wealth but they were not to dabble in politics. Khodorkovsky broke the deal. He was keen to turn his company Yukos, the country’s largest oil company, into a modern and international business. Khodorkovsky challenged the Kremlin’s authority by funding NGOs and opposition parties, lobbying to privatize the state-owned oil pipeline monopoly, and accusing Kremlin officials of corruption. During his imprisonment, Yukos was broken up and sold off, mostly into state hands.

Many Russians still regard the oligarchs with distaste, as they made enormous wealth during the 1990s while most of the populace was mired in poverty, but Khodorkovsky's decade in prison has had a redeeming effect. There was growing sympathy – especially among the new urban middle class – towards his critiques of Russia's political system. Many see in him someone who could eventually unite the fractured opposition to Putin.

A boost for Russia’s image ahead of the Winter Olympics
Khodorkovsky did not fall under the terms of a wide-ranging amnesty passed by Russia's parliament on December 18th, in which two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot will be released early and the Greenpeace Arctic 30 were allowed to leave Russia in the coming days. The sudden announcement of clemency has been linked with an attempt to boost Russia's image and to ease international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead to the Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi in February.

Sources: Reuters, RFE/RL, The Guardian, BBC

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