Putin frees tycoon Khodorkovsky after signing pardon

Pussy Riot duo and Greenpeace activists will also be released in bid to polish image ahead of Olympics

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech Thursday in Moscow.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Two state news agencies report that Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been released from prison following President Vladimir Putin's pardon.

They quoted Khodorkovsky's lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant as saying that he has been informed that Khodorkovsky has been released but he is unaware of any details.

Khodorkovsky has spent the past 10 years in prison on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. His arrest in 2003 and the subsequent prosecution have been widely considered to be Putin's retribution for Khodorkovsky's political ambitions. The decree published on the Kremlin's website on Friday said Putin was pardoning him for humanitarian reasons.

Putin said on Thursday that two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot also would be freed under an amnesty, but Putin still described the band's protest against him in a church as "disgraceful."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, have been serving two-year sentences for performing a "punk prayer" against Putin and his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow's main cathedral in February 2012. The women were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after the protest.

Two of the jailed band members were due for release in March but are now expected to be freed sooner under the amnesty, in part because they are mothers of young children. The amnesty will also enable 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling to avoid trial — removing two snarls in ties with the West before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in February.

But Putin said the amnesty was not drafted with the Greenpeace activists or Pussy Riot in mind. It was passed, he said, to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet constitution.

"It (the amnesty) is neither linked to Greenpeace, nor this group (Pussy Riot)," he said. The Kremlin sees Putin's annual press conference, where he made the announcements, as a key event for burnishing Putin's father-of-the-nation image.

The Kremlin leader made clear he had no doubts about Russia's handling of both cases, although they drew criticism from Western nations and a number of global celebrities.

"I was not sorry that they (the Pussy Riot members) ended up behind bars," Putin said. "I was sorry that they were engaged in such disgraceful behavior, which in my view was degrading to the dignity of women."

"They went beyond all boundaries," he said.

Putin also granted amnesty to Khodorkovsky, a surprise decision that will let his top foe who was once Russia's richest man out of prison after more than a decade.

"He has spent more than 10 years behind bars. It's a tough punishment," Putin said. "He's citing humanitarian aspects — his mother is ill. A decree to pardon him will be signed in the nearest time." Putin signed that decree Friday. 

In October 2003, masked commandos stormed Khodorkovsky's jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested him at gunpoint. He was found guilty of tax evasion in 2005 and convicted of embezzlement in a second case in 2010.

During Putin's first term as president, Khodorkovsky angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbor 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 them enormously rich.

Critics have dismissed the charges against Khodorkovsky as a Kremlin vendetta for challenging Putin's power. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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