Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that he will pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon-turned-"political prisoner" who has been in prison for more than a decade. Formerly one of the richest men in Russia, Khordorkosky was jailed 10 years ago on fraud and embezzlement charges that most see as politically motivated.
As the head of Yukos — the oil conglomerate born out of post-Soviet privatization of state assets — Khordorkosky became one of Russia's most powerful men ... and an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. That's never a good position to be in when the courts can take so much away from you. Yukos was seized by Putin's government in 2003 and eventually sold for spare change, wiping out Khordorkosky's fortune.
Putin made the announcement during his annual four-hour Q&A press conference, and it surprised even Khordorkosky's closest supporters: A spokesperson for the jailed man told the The Wall Street Journal that "We ourselves don't know anything about this. We are trying to find out what is going on." The tycoon's legal team were unaware of any recent requests for a pardon from the prisoner.
TT @juliaioffe I was close to Klyuvgant (Khodorkovsky lawyer) when he got news about his client. It was as big a surprise for him as for me.— Andrew Roth (@ARothNYT) December 19, 2013
But here's what Putin told reporters about Khordokosky's apparently impending pardon, which looks like it could involve an admission of guilt in order to be finalized:
"Mikhail Khodorkovsky…recently wrote to me and asked me for a pardon. He has already been deprived of his liberty for more than 10 years. It is a severe punishment...He asked for a pardon for humanitarian reasons, his mother is sick, and I believe that we can make a decision and will soon sign a decree to pardon him.
According to Russian media, Khordokosky's former business partner Platon Lebedev has no intention of asking for a pardon. The two were jailed in 2003 on similar charges. However, Lebedev recently filed an appeal to Russia's Supreme Court concerning a series of decisions denying him parole. Both Khordokosky and Lebedev are scheduled to be released later in 2014, after their 13-year sentences were recently reduced.
Russia's president also addressed another pair of high-profile Russian prisoners: the two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. A bill recently passed through the country's parliament will grant Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina their freedom, just before the end of their twp-year sentences on "hooliganism" charges. The bill, intended to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's constitution would also clear 30 Greenpeace protesters awaiting trial on the same charge. But Putin wants everyone to know that he doesn't think Pussy Riot was wrongly imprisoned for their brief protest in a Russian Orthodox church:
I was not sorry that they (the Pussy Riot members) ended up behind bars...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.
So why is Russia freeing a series of high-profile prisoners now, just months before their sentences are scheduled to end? Putin's official answer is simply that the amnesty "is neither linked to Greenpeace, nor this group" ("this group" being Pussy Riot), but only to mark the 20th anniversary of the constitution. But it's hard not to see the coincident that that Russia — currently facing criticism for its restrictive anti-gay laws — is set to host the Winter Olympics in February. If you're a repressive regime looking for positive PR, the amnesty bill and the announcement of Khodorkovsky's pardon are both quite well-timed.