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Jailed Russian Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky Walks Free After Presidential Pardon

Vladimir Putin Meeting Russian Filmmakers 2013 H
Vladimir Putin

Once seen as a key political rival, his release after a decade behind bars reflects Vladimir Putin's current sense of power and confidence.

MOSCOW – Jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky walked free on Friday after accepting a presidential pardon after 10 years behind bars.

The former boss of Yukos, who had always maintained his innocence, was released within an hour of President Vladimir Putin issuing a clemency decree.

Freed at the stroke of a pen by the man many hold personally responsible for his arrest, conviction on tax evasion and official seizure of his company's assets, Khodorkovsky, 50, left Correctional Colony No. 7 -- known by its Russian acronym of IK-7, located near the town of Sergezha, close to the border with Finland, 800 miles northwest of Moscow, at midday.

On a day still marked in Russia as 'Day of the Chekists' -- celebrating the founding of Lenin's feared Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, on December 20, 1917, Khodorkovsky was taking no chances and immediately boarded a privately charged jet to fly to Germany.

He was met there by Germany's former foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had made arrangements to charter a jet as soon as he heard that Putin planned to pardon the ex-oil tycoon.

Khodorkovsky's parents, Marina, 79, and Boris, 80, told Russian television they were planning to fly to Germany to join him for an emotional reunion, despite the toll his years of incarceration has taken on their health. She was recently released after a three-month stay in the hospital.

Mrs. Khodorkovskaya, who is being treated for cancer, and is on sedatives to calm her nerves, said: "I just want to hug him. I don't even know what I am going to say to him."

The poor health of his parents is understood to have played a part in Khodorkovsky's apparent decision to petition Putin for clemency.

Freedom for the man who once saw himself as a contender for the Kremlin and whose arrest at gunpoint in 2003 and subsequent imprisonment became a defining symbol of Mr. Putin's rule comes after a rapid series of extraordinary developments in the past 24 hours.

On Thursday, soon after Putin had used his annual Kremlin press briefing, attended by 1,300 accredited journalists from across Russia and worldwide, to publicly shame the two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina -- themselves due for release under a prison amnesty that excluded the ex-Yukos boss -- the possibility of Khodorkovsky's pardon was revealed for the first time.

"Not long ago he appealed to me for a pardon," Putin told reporters as he left the four-hour-long marathon press conference.

In what seemed to be off-the-cuff remarks, the Russian president said: "He has already spent 10 years behind bars -- it's a serious punishment. He mentions humanitarian considerations, as his mother is ill. Given all this, the correct decision should be taken and a decree on his pardoning will be signed very soon."

By Friday morning Putin had signed the clemency decree, which came into effect immediately and Khodorkovsky was free to leave prison.

The move took his legal team and family by surprise. Russian media reported that Khodorkovsky, who had long refused to request a pardon, insisting that would suggest he accepted his guilt, had been put under pressure by security services to approach Putin.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, seemed to confirm that when early on Friday, he said the document had been signed personally by Khodorkovsky, suggesting that no lawyers were involved.

The emotional and physical toll imposed on his parents, retired engineers from relatively humble backgrounds who live in Moscow, certainly appears to have played a factor.

But accepting a pardon will likely end his chance of rehabilitation in Russia and prevent an international campaign to recover the assets of his oil company, seized by the Kremlin after his arrest.

What role the businessman might play now in Russian public affairs is unclear. Three years ago, Cyril Tuschi's documentary film on the jailed oligarch was a sensation at the Berlin Film Festival, where a master copy of it was stolen from the director's office the night before it was screened in a burglary believed at the time to have been the work of Russian security forces.

Putin's decision to submit an amnesty to Parliament earlier this week that frees the Pussy Riot members and allows 30 Greenpeace activists on trial in St. Petersburg for storming a Russian gas drilling platform in the Barents Sea last September in a protest over Arctic resource explorations, is seen as an attempt to improve the country's international image ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic games, which are due to begin early February.

The moves also reflect a growing sense of confidence in his power and stability at the end of a year of international diplomatic triumphs.

Those include frustrating a U.S. attempt at military intervention in Syria, a Russian ally, and spiking plans by Ukraine to sign a deal on closer trade and political links with the European Union with a $15 billion financial bailout for the cash-strapped nation which, like Russia, until 1991, was part of the Soviet Union.

There was no further news on Friday as to when the Pussy Riot women would be freed.

On Thursday Putin confirmed at his press conference that they would be released under the amnesty soon, but criticized them for their "degrading" behavior.

The two women are serving two-year sentences for the anti-Putin 'punk prayer,' staged at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February last year, during the election campaign before the president won his third term in office.