Russia's most famous prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky denied yesterday that he had admitted guilt in his request for a Kremlin pardon and thanked Germany's former foreign minister for aiding his release.
"On November 12, I turned to the president of Russia with a request for a pardon associated with family circumstances, and am glad about the positive decision. The issue of my guilt was not addressed," Khodorkovsky said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned his long-time rival yesterday morning and the country's Federal Penitentiary Service said Khodorkovsky quickly left the IK-7 prison in the remote northwestern village of Segezha.
Germany's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Khodorkovsky arrived at Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport in the afternoon. Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed a role played "behind the scenes" by former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in helping to secure the release of Khodorkovsky.
Russia's most famous inmate had been in prison for more than a decade for tax-evasion and embezzlement convictions which the US and European Union said represented selective administration of justice.
The pardon caps a week in which Russia has battled back against international allegations of human rights abuses. Lawmakers approved a broad amnesty three days ago that included 30 Greenpeace crew members who faced hooliganism charges for an Arctic drilling protest.
Two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, jailed for two years after an anti-Kremlin protest in a Moscow cathedral, will be offered freedom under the amnesty, according to their lawyer.
Rather than representing a concession to international disapproval, the Khodorkovsky pardon would appear to come from a position of strength, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Putin has shown he can stand against international wishes - by supporting Syria's president, granting asylum to American leaker Edward Snowden and pulling Ukraine's government towards Russia and away from a deal to get closer to the European Union.
"There is no reason to suspect that he's pardoned Khodorkovsky because he is under pressure," said Lipman. "With negative publicity pouring all over him, Putin has dramatically changed the news cycle."
Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, told RT television that Putin's decision came as a "bolt from the blue", according to a transcript of her remarks e-mailed by the state-run broadcaster.
Khodorkovsky's oil company was effectively crushed under the weight of a US$28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off mostly to the state oil company Rosneft.
Reuters, Associated Press, Bloomberg