Putin Foe Released From Prison, Goes to Germany

After a decade in prison, the former oil tycoon was abruptly pardoned

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Stanislav Krasilnikov / Itar-Tass / Abaca

Former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks from the sealed glass dock as the verdict being read out at the Khamovniki District Court in Moscow in 2010.

Updated Dec. 20, 11:14 a.m.

A Russian oil tycoon and political foe of President Vladimir Putin was released from prison on Friday after Putin signed a decree that pardoned him.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 50, had spent the past decade in prison after being convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement. Once Russia’s richest man, he was a fierce Kremlin critic and an influential political opponent to Putin. Shortly after his release, state media reported that he was en route to Germany, and just hours later a German company said he had arrived there, the Associated Press reports.

“I would like to thank everyone who has been following the… 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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Khodorkovsky said he asked Putin on Nov. 12 to pardon him for family circumstances and that “the issue of guilt was not raised.”

“I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned,” Khodorkovsky added.

At a news conference on Dec. 19, Putin announced that the former oligarch would be freed: “He has already spent more than ten years in prison. That is a serious punishment. In the near future, a decree will be signed to pardon him.”

That “near future” appeared to be the very next day. After being quietly escorted from the prison in northwestern Russia, he reportedly flew to Germany to visit his ailing mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya. “It has not sunk in yet,” she told Russian state television.

The abrupt pardoning of Khodorkovsky — in addition to the amnesty announced for other high-profile prisoners, like the two jailed musicians of Pussy Riot and a group of Greenpeace protesters — might be a sign of Putin trying to quell international criticism of the country’s record on human rights in the walk-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in February.

MORE: Khodorkovsky’s Pardon Is Another Sign Russia Is Winning