Putin signs decree to pardon tycoon Khodorkovsky

Associated Press
FILE In this  Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010 file photo Mikhail Khodorkovsky, left, looks from behind glass at a court room in Moscow,  Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Dec. 19, 2013, that he will pardon his arch-enemy Khodorkovsky who has spent the past 10 years in prison on tax evasion and embezzlement charges. Khodorkovsky's release could potentially be Putin's biggest political decision this year. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a decree pardoning jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the man who has been described as his archrival.

Khodorkovsky has spent the past 10 years in prison on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. His arrest in 2003 and the subsequent prosecution have been widely considered to be Putin's retribution for Khodorkovsky's political ambitions.

Putin first spoke about pardon after a news conference on Thursday, saying that Khodorkovsky has applied for the pardon because his mother's health is deteriorating. The Kremlin's website published a decree Friday morning saying that Putin was "guided by the principles of humanity" when he decided to pardon Khodorkovsky.

The development — along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship — appears aimed at easing international criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin's pet project.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, would not say when or where his client would be released, but he said this may happen any moment.

"I believe that once the decree was signed it has to be executed immediately," Klyuvgant told The Associated Press.

A duty officer at the penitentiary service in Karelia, where Khodorkovsky is serving his sentence, told the AP that the former tycoon has not been released yet, but said they will follow the law and release the prisoner "without delay." He would not say when that will happen. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Khodorkovsky's father Boris said the family has not been yet informed of Khodorkovsky's release and have not heard from him.

"We sit and wait," Boris Khodorkovsky said.

Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man and the CEO of the country's largest oil company when he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion. Critics have dismissed the charges against him as a Kremlin vendetta for challenging Putin's power. During Putin's first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbor personal political ambitions.

His actions defied an unwritten pact between Putin and a narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed "oligarchs," under which the government refrained from reviewing privatization deals that made the group enormously rich.

Khodorkovsky's oil company Yukos was effectively crushed under the weight of a $28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off. Most of it went to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control of the country's oil business as well as stifle an inconvenient voice.

Khodorkovsky's current net worth is unknown, but likely it's at most a mere shadow of his onetime fortune.

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Leonid Chizhov contributed to this report.

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