In an act that surprised the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the end of his annual press conference on Thursday.
Some have speculated that the pardon was an attempt by Putin to appease world leaders who have expressed concern over Russia's human rights record prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Leaders such as US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have denounced a law that Putin signed in June banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
Although no one knows exactly how the law will effect participants and spectators at the Winter Games, it is seen as further censorship and persecution of gays in Russia and has sparked tension worldwide as the Olympics draw closer.
Khodorkovsky, considered a political prisoner by critics of Putin and the Kremlin, has spent more than a decade behind bars.
Khodorkovsky is the former head of Yukos Oil and was once the richest person in Russia - and no. 15 in the world. He and his business partner were convicted and imprisoned on charges of fraud and tax evasion in 2003. In December 2010, just before they were due to be released from prison, they were convicted of embezzlement and money laundering. The second conviction increased their prison sentence.
Critics believed that Putin and his allies were behind the sentencing. When Putin came into power in 2000, he offered an informal deal to the Russian oligarchy: they could keep their wealth with the provision that they stay out of politics. Khodorkovsky flaunted the rules by speaking out against what he considered corruption in the Kremlin and using his riches to fund opposition political parties.
Despite the fact that Khodorkovsky had vowed not to ask for a pardon lest he appear to be admitting guilt, Putin said on Thursday that he'd received a request signed by Khodorkovsy, who was scheduled to be released from prison in August 2014:
"Not long ago he appealed to me for a pardon. He has already spent 10 years behind bars – it's a serious punishment. He mentions humanitarian considerations, as his mother is ill. Given all this, the correct decision should be taken and a decree on his pardoning will be signed very soon."
After his attorneys initially denied that Khodorkovsky had made any such appeal, it surfaced that he had been visited in prison and urged to sign a request for pardon based on this mother's failing health and the possibility that new charges were being prepared against him.
Khodorkovsky joined his mother in Germany after being released from prison and issued the following statement:
On November 12, I asked the president of Russia to pardon me due to my family situation, and I am glad his decision was positive.
The issue of admission of guilt was not raised.
I would like to thank everyone who has been following the Yukos case all these years for the support you provided to me, my family and all those who were unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted. I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to hug my close ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates.
I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned.
My special thanks is to Mr Hans-Dietrich Genscher for his personal participation in my fate.
First of all I am going to repay my debt to my parents, my wife and my children, and I am very much looking forward to meeting them.
I will welcome the opportunity to celebrate this upcoming holiday season with my family. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Image via Wikimedia Commons