Vladimir Putin Says He Will Pardon Jailed Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky

The shock decision to free Russia’s most famous political prisoner comes as Russia attempts to sanitize its image ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

Grigory Dukor / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he would pardon jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly the country’s richest man and now widely hailed as its biggest political prisoner.

Putin told journalists following a marathon four-hour annual press conference in Moscow that Khodorkovsky had written him a letter asking for a pardon, state television reported. The shock decision follows a sweeping amnesty passed by parliament Wednesday that frees prominent prisoners such as members of the punk band Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists arrested for an environmental protest.

Both decisions come as Russia is attempting to sanitize its image ahead of the Sochi Olympics in February. In recent days, Western leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande, and German President Joachim Gauck announced they would not attend the Olympics. The decisions were seen as a major snub to Putin, who has put his personal stamp on making the games a spectacular success.

Putin said that Khodorkovsky “went through serious punishment. He cited circumstances of a humanitarian nature — his mother is ill.”

“I believe that, taking all these circumstances into account, a corresponding decision can be taken, and a decree pardoning him can be signed in the near future,” he added.

Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Vadim Klyugvant told the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency that he was unaware of his client asking for a pardon, which would require him to admit his guilt, something he refused to do multiple times throughout his sentence. Putin said at his 2012 press conference that he could not pardon Khodorkovsky if he did not admit his guilt.

Khodorkovsky, 50, was head of Russia’s largest oil company, Yukos, until his arrest in 2003 on tax evasion charges that were widely seen as retribution for his attempts to challenge Putin politically. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2005 and convicted in a second trial in 2010 of stealing the same oil he was already behind bars for not paying taxes on. Amnesty International has designated him and co-defendant Platon Lebedev prisoners of conscience.

Though Khodorkovsky’s term expires in August, prosecutors announced earlier this month that they were investigating a number of separate cases against him in an apparent attempt to keep him behind bars perpetually. Putin said during the press conference Thursday, however, that he saw “little hope” in a third trial and believed it “posed no threat to anyone.”

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