Putin to pardon jailed Russian tycoon Khodorkovsky

By bne IntelliNews December 19, 2013

bne -

bne: update December 20. Putin signed the decree to pardon Khodorkovsky this morning, which under Russia law means he is immediately free and should be escorted from prison the same day. END

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky had applied for a pardon and that he would sign the document immediately after finishing a four-hour long press conference.

In classic Putin style, the Russian president waited until the press conference was officially over and dropped the bombshell in an off-mike comment to a journalist, which immediately tweeted the news. The effect was immediate and had a room of over 1,300 journalists scrambling to confirm the news as bedlam broke out.

Khodorkovsky has spent over 10 years in jail after being sentenced twice on fraud and tax evasion charges. Khodorkovsky, who turned 50 this year, was due for release in 2014 following his arrest on a Siberian runway in 2003. Recently, there have been rumours that Russia's investigation committee were preparing a third case against him to ensure he remains in jail during the next presidential elections slated for 2018.

Fellow oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who has political ambitions of his own, immediately tweeted: "What should've happened several years ago has happened. I'm happy for Mikhail and his family," as the torrent of reactions set social media ablaze.

"[Khodorkovsky] cites humanitarian reasons," Putin told reporters huddling around the president to get in one last question. "As far as Khodorkovsky is concerned, I have already spoken about this, Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] should in line with the law have written the necessary document, which he didn't do, but just recently he wrote this document and addressed me with an appeal for clemency," he said.

Putin said Khodorkovsky would be released partly on humanitarian grounds, as his mother is sick, but the formal documents have not been signed yet. "The order for the pardon will issued and the person will be freed," Putin said, according to RIA Novosti.

There were conflicting reports on the reaction of Khodorkovsky's legal team, which has been lobbying tirelessly for his release. According to some journalists the team has filed the papers, but RIA Novosti reported that his lawyers had done no such thing. "He never filed [an appeal for pardon], and we haven't had any recent information about anyone appealing on his behalf. We don't have this information, although we've received a number of pardon appeals on his behalf of other people over the years," said Vadim Klyuvgant, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, however said the letter Putin recently received was signed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky personally.

The jailed tycoon could have filed an application for pardon without his lawyers' help through the administration of the penal colony, pointed out Tamara Morshchakova, a member of the Human Rights Council, reports RT.

Or it could be possible the application for a pardon was filed by a different set of lawyers, as Khodorkovsky has maintained a large lobbying and legal team while in jail to campaign for his release and more generally run a campaign against the Kremlin.

The question of whether the papers have been filed by a legitimate representative is a crucial one. The Russian Duma passed in two readings out of three a new amnesty bill that will release anyone convicted of a non-serious or economic crime this week. Indeed, during the press conference Putin confirmed that the jailed members of punk rock group Pussy Riot, the Greenpeace activists who were arrested last month for trying to board a Russian oil rig in the Arctic, and four protestors detained following a clash with police on Bolotnaya square in central Moscow on May 6, 2012 would all granted an amnesty. Before the press conference several of the Bolotnaya detainees had already been released.

Khodorkovsky was not going to be included in the amnesty because he has been convicted of a serious crime. What raises doubts about the pardon application is the applicant must admit to their guilt before a presidential pardon can be granted - something Khodorkovsky has always refused to do.

However, according to bne sources there has been ongoing negotiations between the Kremlin and Khodorkovsky for several years. Khodorkovsky was already offered a deal before his appearance in court in 2010 that kept him in jail, but refused to be released without his business partner Platon Lebedev.

If it turns out that the pardon application is genuine and Khodorkovsky really is released, the reasons for why Putin chose now to act remain a matter of conjecture.

There are two possible explanations. The first is that Putin is attempting to halt the rapidly deteriorating relations with the West. This year Russia has gotten into more rows with the West than ever before over issues to do with human rights through to the US' insistence on setting up its missile shield in Europe. bne ran a cover story on the start of Cold War II and the phrase came up again only this week after the government announced it was moving nuclear weapons up to Nato's border in the Baltics.

Khodorkovsky has become a cause célèbre and personifies the flaws with Russia's rule of law and the use of selective justice. Releasing him has to be welcomed by the West and could be seen as an olive branch.

The second reason is domestic politics. The Kremlin was rudely shocked by the street protests that erupted in December 2011 after the flawed parliamentary elections that were won by the party of power, United Russia. Since then, Putin has made some small steps to placating the population. Following his own re-election as president in May 2012 he told the new regional governors who were elected on the same day that they should "reach out to the opposition" and "listen to their demands." He repeated the same message last week in his state of the nation message and even met with the non-parliamentary opposition leaders ahead of the speech for the first time ever.

The need to reach out to the opposition and at least respond to their demands, if not actually meet them, can only have been underlined by the mass protests that now occupy the centre of Kyiv. Unlike his Ukrainian counterpart President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin is a sufficiently savvy politician to release he needs to take some steam out of the opposition and accept some limited measure of real political competition or face a Kyiv-style revolution that will probably cost Yanukovych his job (and his freedom).

If Khodorkovsky is pardoned, he will immediately leave the penal colony where he is serving his sentence, Klyuvgant said. The procedure is pretty simple: a person is free once the president signs the pardon decree, according to lawyers.

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