BERLIN – After spending 10 years in Russian jails for what many in the West believe were trumped-up offences, Mikhail Khodorkovsky left prison a free man Friday and immediately flew to Germany.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned his long-time rival Friday morning and the country’s Federal Penitentiary Service said Khodorkovsky quickly left the IK-7 prison in the remote northwestern village of Segezha.
Khodorkovsky had petitioned to be allowed to travel to Germany to meet his mother who is undergoing medical treatment, the Penitentiary Service said in a statement.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Khodorkovsky arrived at Berlin’s Schoenefeld Airport in the afternoon.
In a statement released on the website of his lawyers and supporters, Khodorkovsky said his application for a pardon was not an admission of guilt.
“I am very much waiting for the minute when I can embrace my nearest and personally shake the hands of all my friends and colleagues,” he said in the statement.
During his time in prison on politically tinged charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, the 50-year-old Khodorkovsky has shifted his image from a powerfully wealthy, often arrogant oligarch into a respected dissident. The former oil tycoon became a political thinker and editorial writer who argued for social justice and placed the blame for Russia’s stagnating economy squarely on its longtime leader Putin.
It wasn’t clear whether Khodorkovsky would continue his opposition to the Kremlin or even choose to return to Russia.
Putin’s announcement less than 24 hours before the release that Khodorkovsky would be pardoned appeared to catch both the public and Khodorkovsky’s lawyers by surprise. His release was equally shrouded in mystery. Several hours before he was allowed to go, Khodorkovsky’s lawyers and family said they still had no idea when he would be let out.
Khodorkovsky’s father, Boris, told The Associated Press that he and his wife Maria are in Moscow and will fly to Germany on Saturday.
Khodorkovsky’s second wife and three children live in the Moscow region. Pavel, his eldest son from his first marriage, has been campaigning on his father’s behalf and lives with his family in New York City.
Putin told reporters on Thursday that Khodorkovsky applied for the pardon because his mother’s health is deteriorating. The Kremlin’s website published a decree Friday morning saying that Putin was “guided by the principles of humanity” when he decided to pardon Khodorkovsky.
The pardon appeared to be a sudden turnaround for the Kremlin, which has vigorously prosecuted Khodorkovsky since his arrest in 2003, in what was widely seen as Putin’s retribution for the tycoon’s political ambitions.
Freeing Russia’s most famous prisoner — along with an amnesty this for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship — appears aimed at easing international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s pet project.
It also appears to reflect Putin’s confidence in his hold on power and his belief that Khodorkovsky now presents little threat to his rule.
Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man, worth billions of dollars, and the CEO of the country’s largest oil company when he was arrested in 2003 on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion.
During Putin’s first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbour personal political ambitions. His actions defied an unwritten pact between Putin and a narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed “oligarchs,” under which the government refrained from reviewing privatization deals that made the group enormously rich.
Khodorkovsky’s oil company Yukos was effectively crushed under the weight of a $28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off. Most of it went to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control of the country’s oil business as well as stifle an inconvenient voice.
Khodorkovsky’s current net worth is unknown, but it’s likely, at most, a mere shadow of his onetime fortune.
Jordans reported from Berlin. Jim Heintz, Laura Mills and Leonid Chizhov in Moscow and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.