comments_image Comments

Khodorkovsky arrives in Germany after lightning release

Mikhail Khodorkovsky waving from the defendant's cage in a Moscow courtroom, on November 2, 2010
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 arrived in Germany a free man after more than 10 years behind bars, in a whirlwind release hours after his surprise pardon by President Vladimir Putin.

The former oil tycoon was quietly escorted out of his prison in northwestern Russia in a low-key operation, depriving journalists of any image of the former convict leaving his remote penal colony.

In a dizzying succession of events, the father of four then boarded a plane to Germany, the prison service said. The German foreign ministry later said he had landed at Berlin's Schoenefeld airport.

"After his release he flew to Germany where his mother is undergoing treatment," the prison service said in a statement, saying he had requested permission to travel abroad.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 20, 2013
Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 20, 2013

A source told AFP that Khodorkovsky's ailing mother Marina, 79, was currently in Russia but planned to fly out to Berlin, where she was treated before, on Saturday.

The source also said his wife Inna was now in Switzerland.

Later in the day Khodorkovsky met with one of his lawyers, Anton Drel, said spokespeople for the tycoon without providing any details.

Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, after stunning the country on Thursday by saying his fierce critic had 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 on Friday.

Less than three hours later, his lawyers said Khodorkovsky, 50, had left his prison colony in the town of Segezha in the Karelia region.

'It has not sunk in yet'

The ruthless efficiency of the lightning-fast release pointed to the likely involvement of security services and resembled past spy exchanges between Russia and the West.

The release drew the curtain on the highest profile criminal case in post-Soviet Russia which has harmed the country's investment climate and become a symbol for the selective persecution of Kremlin foes under Putin.

This combination of two file pictures shows Mikhail Khodorkovsky during  his trials in Moscow on December 23, 2003 (R) and on June 3, 2011 (L)
Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during his two trials in 2003 (right) and 2011, is set to remain in prison until 2014

"It has not sunk in yet," his mother Marina Khodorkovskaya told 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.

By accident or design, the release has coincided with a major amnesty for prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes that is expected to see the Pussy Riot punk rockers freed in the next days.

Thirty foreign and Russian Greenpeace activists, arrested on hooliganism charges after their protest against Arctic oil drilling, are also expected to escape prosecution.

'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 him on money-laundering charges.

Putin said on Thursday he saw no prospects for the third case.

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.

A TV grab taken from footage by TV company Nika shows a Russian Emergencies Ministry helicopter standing near Penal Colony No. 7 where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held at the village of Segezha
A TV grab taken from footage by TV company Nika shows a Russian Emergencies Ministry helicopter standing near Penal Colony No. 7 where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held at the village of Segezha

But the Kommersant broadsheet, citing sources, said Khodorkovsky had decided to seek a pardon after a recent meeting with representatives of Russia's security services.

Members of the security services told him the health of his mother, who has cancer, was worsening and warned him about a possible third case against him, the newspaper said.

Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Macro Advisory consultancy, said Khodorkovsky will likely come under pressure to spearhead an opposition movement.

"Khodorkovsky had spent 10 years in a Gulag, survived and has remained strong and defiant," Weafer told AFP. "That will go a long way to rehabilitate his previously poor image with Russian people."

Analysts put the release down to the Kremlin's bid to improve its dismal rights record and international image ahead of the Winter Olympic Games that Russia is hosting in February.

Wearing masks of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, opposition activists take part in a demonstration in St. Petersburg on June 26, 2013 to mark the jailed former tycoon's 50th birthday
Wearing masks of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, opposition activists take part in a demonstration in St. Petersburg on June 26, 2013 to mark the jailed former tycoon's 50th birthday

"In and of itself it will not change anything but it will give hope to investors," prominent economist Sergei Guriev, who co-authored a critical report on Khodorkovsky's second conviction in 2010, told AFP by email.

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.

He and his business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005.

Khodorkovsky was convicted of embezzlement in a second trial in 2010.

Lebedev's lawyers have said their client may also seek a pardon.