Oil ty­coon free at last as Putin buffs his im­age

Khodor­kovsky par­don a sur­prise

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - WORLD -

SEGEZHA, Rus­sia: Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, once Rus­sia’s rich­est man, left prison and headed to Ger­many yes­ter­day af­ter a par­don from Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ended a decade in jail that many saw as the fallen oil ty­coon’s pun­ish­ment for dar­ing to chal­lenge the Krem­lin.

With re­porters scram­bling for scraps of in­for­ma­tion and a glimpse of Khodor­kovsky, his re­lease echoed the ar­rival in Rus­sia ear­lier this year of for­mer US spy agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den, who was kept from the pub­lic eye for weeks in what ap­peared to be a tightly chore­ographed game of cat-and-mouse.

Putin said two mem­bers of the Pussy Riot protest group would also be freed, un­der an amnesty passed by par­lia­ment this week.

A gov­ern­ment source said the move could de­flect crit­i­cism over Putin’s hu­man rights record as Rus­sia pre­pares to host the Win­ter Olympics in Sochi in Fe­bru­ary.

“He has left the camp. That’s all I can say,” Khodor­kovsky’s lawyer, Vadim Klyu­vgant, said.

Putin sur­prised Rus­sians and cheered the busi­ness com­mu­nity by an­nounc­ing he would free the 50-year-old busi­ness­man be­cause his mother was ill.

In­vestors said it could ease en­trepreneurs’ fears of the Krem­lin ex­ploit­ing the courts for po­lit­i­cal ends.

In a pres­i­den­tial de­cree signed yes­ter­day, Putin said he was “guided by the prin­ci­ples of hu­man­ity”.

Putin had said af­ter a fourhour, end-of-year news con­fer­ence on Thurs­day that Khodor­kovsky had asked for cle­mency.

This took his lawyers by sur­prise and they said they were check­ing with their client.

He was sched­uled for re­lease in Au­gust but sup­port­ers had feared the sen­tence might be ex­tended, as it was once be­fore.

Re­porters wait­ing out­side Pe­nal Colony No. 7 at Segezha, near the Fin­nish bor­der, 300km south of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, did not see Khodor­kovsky leave.

He has spent the past few years work­ing in the camp, in an area that was once a no­to­ri­ous part of Stalin’s Gu­lag sys­tem of labour camps.

In the eyes of crit­ics at home and abroad, his jail­ing was a sig­nif­i­cant stain on the record of Putin, 60, who was elected pres­i­dent in 2000 and has not ruled out seek­ing another six-year term in 2018.

Khodor­kovsky came to rep­re­sent what crit­ics say is the Krem­lin’s mis­use of the ju­di­cial sys­tem, curb­ing the rule of law, and of its re­fusal to per­mit dis­sent.

The au­thor­i­ties deny this,

In­vestors said it could ease en­trepreneurs’ fears of the Krem­lin ex­ploit­ing the courts

say­ing judges are in­de­pen­dent and that Putin has not cracked down on op­po­nents.

The pres­i­dent has, how­ever, sin­gled Khodor­kovsky out for bit­ter per­sonal at­tacks in the past and ig­nored many calls for his re­lease.

The sur­prise an­nounce­ment un­der­lined Putin’s con­fi­dence that he has re­asserted his au­thor­ity and is in full con­trol of Rus­sia af­ter see­ing off street protests and win­ning a third pres­i­den­tial term in March last year.

Putin would not have al­lowed Khodor­kovsky’s re­lease if he saw him as a threat, po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Gleb Pavlovsky told Ekho Moskvy ra­dio.

“Khodor­kovsky is Putin’s pris­oner,” he said.

Khodor­kovsky had been in jail since his ar­rest in Oc­to­ber 2003 in what sup­port­ers say was part of a Krem­lin cam­paign to pun­ish him for po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges to Putin, gain con­trol of his oil as­sets and warn other ty­coons to toe the line.

The oil baron fell out with Putin be­fore his ar­rest as the pres­i­dent clipped the wings of wealthy “oli­garchs” who had be­come pow­er­ful dur­ing the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule fol­low­ing the col­lapse of Soviet com­mu­nism.

His com­pany, Yukos, was bro­ken up and sold off, mainly into state hands, fol­low­ing his ar­rest at gun­point on an air­port run­way in Siberia on fraud and tax eva­sion charges.

Yukos’s prize pro­duc­tion as­set ended up in the hands of state oil com­pany Ros­neft, which is now headed by close Putin ally Igor Sechin.

Sechin said yes­ter­day he saw no threat of le­gal ac­tion from Khodor­kovsky, state-run news agency Itar- Tass re­ported.

Rus­sian shares ini­tially rose af­ter Putin’s an­nounce­ment on Thurs­day but later set­tled back.

A sus­tained rally would re­quire “a con­sis­tent track record of im­ple­men­ta­tion of mar­ket-friendly re­forms – in par­tic­u­lar, of steps to im­prove the ju­di­cial sys­tem, so that de­ci­sions are more pre­dictable and prop­erty rights bet­ter pro­tected”, an econ­o­mist at an in­vest­ment bank said in Moscow.

Putin has staked a great deal of per­sonal pres­tige on the Win­ter Games at Sochi on the Black Sea and is un­der fire abroad over a law ban­ning the spread of “gay pro­pa­ganda” among mi­nors.

Putin’s amnesty is also ex­pected to end the prose­cu­tion of 30 peo­ple over a Green­peace protest against oil drilling in the Arc­tic and al­low the 26 for­eign­ers among them to go home. They faced up to seven years in prison. – Reuters

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

SWOOP: Heav­ily armed po­lice of­fi­cers pre­pare to drag a man from his car out­side the New South Wales state par­lia­ment build­ing in Syd­ney yes­ter­day. The stand­off be­tween a man in the white car and po­lice lasted around two hours, with po­lice fear­ing the car held con­tain­ers of flammable liq­uid, lo­cal me­dia re­ported.

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

LEFT CAMP: For­mer oil ty­coon Mikhail Khodor­kovsky in court in 2010.

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