Oil tycoon free at last as Putin buffs his image
Khodorkovsky pardon a surprise
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
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.
LEFT CAMP: Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in court in 2010.