President Vladimir Putin said yesterday he would pardon jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a surprise decision that will let his top foe and Russia's formerly richest man out of prison after more than a decade.
Putin made the comments after the conclusion of a marathon four-hour press conference in Moscow.
He was asked during the session whether Khodorkovsky, who has already faced two separate trials for economic crimes and is due to be released next August, might face a third trial. Putin was non-committal in his answer, but then following the end of the conference, in a conversation with journalists at the sidelines, said he would soon issue a pardon.
"He has spent more than 10 years behind bars. It's a tough punishment," Putin said. "He's citing humanitarian aspects - his mother is ill. A decree to pardon him will be signed in the nearest time."
In October 2003, masked commandos stormed into Khodorkovsky's jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested him at gunpoint. He was found guilty of tax evasion in 2005 and convicted of embezzlement in a second case in 2010.
Critics have dismissed the charges against Khodorkovsky as a Kremlin vendetta for challenging Putin's power.
In his press conference, Putin also confirmed that an amnesty approved by the Kremlincontrolled parliament on Wednesday will apply to the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail and the Greenpeace crew facing hooliganism charges for their protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic.
Asked whether he felt sorry for the two women, Putin stood by his strong criticism of their irreverent protest at Moscow's main cathedral, describing it as a publicity stunt that "crossed all barriers".
Amid a strain in Russia-US ties, he also offered surprising support to President Barack Obama by saying that US National Security Agency surveillance is necessary to fight terrorism.
He argued that it was necessary to monitor large numbers of people to expose terrorist contacts. But "on a political level, it's necessary to limit the appetite of special services with certain rules", he said.
Asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whom Russia has granted asylum, Putin insisted that Moscow isn't controlling him.
He argued that any revelations published by Snowden must have come from materials he provided before landing in Russia, and reaffirmed that Moscow made providing refuge to Snowden conditional on his halting anti-American activities.