Russia's best-known prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, may soon be freed from prison, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, some 10 years after his criminal prosecution and the wholesale dismantling of his oil empire signaled the Kremlin’s intention to eliminate serious political opponents.
The bombshell announcement by President Putin was made in a seemingly off-handed comment to reporters following his annual news conference. Experts said it appeared part of a public relations masterstroke that could clear away the bulk of Russia's most controversial criminal dockets just two months before the Sochi Winter Olympics, on which Mr. Putin has staked his own, and Russia's, prestige.
"This is all about Sochi," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst and veteran Kremlin critic.
News of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s potential release came on the heels of a sweeping amnesty for about 20,000 prisoners that was passed unanimously by Russia’s lower house of parliament Wednesday. That amnesty would apply to two activists of the punk rock group Pussy Riot and 30 protesters from the environmental group Greenpeace, cases that have drawn international criticism.
Scrutiny of Russia’s human rights record has intensified in recent months as the Sochi Games have neared. Earlier this week, the White House announced that two openly gay athletes would be among the official delegation attending the opening ceremonies— a gesture pointed at a new law that negatively affects gays and lesbians in Russia.
During the 4-plus hour news conference, which was televised live and attended by hundreds of reporters from around Russia, Putin did answer a reporter’s question about Khodorkovsky, but didn’t mention anything about a possible release order.
Following the conference, however, Mr. Putin told a scrum of reporters outside that Khodorkovsky had written an appeal for clemency – though not a request for pardon – and that the necessary arrangements for his release will soon be made.
"In line with the law, Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] should have written [a pardon request], which he didn’t do, but just recently he wrote this document and addressed me with an appeal for clemency," Putin said.
Khodorkovsky "has already spent more than 10 years in prison. That is a serious punishment. In his letter he makes reference to humanitarian circumstances. He has a sick mother. I believe that we can soon make the decision and sign a decree granting him amnesty," he said.
The difference between "pardon" and "clemency" is a crucial distinction for Khodorkovksky, since in legal terms the first would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, while the second is merely a plea for mercy.
Khodorkovsky was one of a group of ambitious, politically connected businessmen known as “oligarchs” who amassed powerful business empires in the tumultuous years after the Soviet collapse. His company, Yukos, was on track to become one of Russia’s largest and possibly most transparent corporations when Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint on an airport tarmac in 2003.
He subsequently went through two trials for graft, embezzlement, and tax evasion, and many years in a Siberian penal colony, all the while maintaining his innocence. His supporters, and most Western observers, maintain he was singled out for prosecution, and his oil empire effectively nationalized, due to his political disobedience to the Kremlin and support for opposition and independent civil society forces.
The general amnesty proclaimed by the State Duma, initiated at the Kremlin's request, would not have covered Khodorkovsky. But it would apply to thousands of Russians jailed for minor crimes like "hooliganism" or for taking part in illegal protests, as well as pregnant women, young mothers, retirees, and several other groups. It would be extended to many of those on trial, including the Greenpeace defendants, arrested for trying to hang a banner on an Arctic oil drilling platform.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot activist who's continued to be a thorn in the authorities' side even in prison, is eligible for the amnesty, as is her co-defendant and fellow prisoner, Maria Alyokhina.
At least four defendants in the less well-known “Bolotnaya” case also appear headed for freedom. The prosecution of more than two dozen protesters, accused of causing "mass disturbances" during a mostly-peaceful rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration last year, has been widely criticized as a politically-motivated overreaction to the now-defunct anti-Putin protest movement that kicked-off with mass rallies in Moscow two years ago.
With the general amnesty, plus the special release of Khodorkovsky, Putin appears to have arranged that Russia will go into the Sochi Olympics with virtually none of the “political prisoners” that have been the focus of Western criticism still in prison.
"Every passing day brings news of another world leader deciding not to come to the Games,” Mr. Piontkovsky says. “Putin decided something had to be done. Especially with Khodorkovsky, who is the most famous political prisoner in Russia. Since Khodorkovsky did not ask for a pardon, but is being freed anyway, it shows that Putin needs this more than Khodorkovsky does."