Russia's highest court decided yesterday to free the jailed business partner of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky three months early but left in place a tax bill of 17 billion rubles (HK$3.9 billion) that will, in effect, prevent Khodorkovsky from returning to Russia.
Khodorkovsky was pardoned in December by President Vladimir Putin and put directly on a plane to Berlin. Now, his partner, Platon Lebedev, is to walk free.
Both men spent more than 10 years in prison in a case seen as revenge for Khodorkovsky challenging Putin's economic and political power in the early years of his presidency.
Khodorkovsky has said he would not return to Russia as long as the back-tax claim remained in force because it could be used to prevent him from leaving the country again.
Since his release, Khodorkovsky has been cautious in any criticism of Putin. He has said that he has no interest in getting involved in Russian politics or fighting for the return of his oil company, Yukos, most of which was taken over by state-owned Rosneft.
Khodorkovsky had said his priority would be to win the release of Lebedev and the former Yukos security chief, Alexei Pichugin, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were arrested in 2003 and convicted in 2005 of evading taxes on Yukos. They were convicted again in a second case in 2010 on charges of stealing oil from Yukos and laundering the proceeds.
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Lebedev's prison sentence would be reduced to 10 years, six months and 22 days. Since Lebedev was arrested on July 2, 2003, that means he should be released from a prison in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region as early as today.