Putin drops Khodorkovsky bombshell in informal chat

After a four-hour marathon press conference, journalists could have been forgiven for assuming that President Vladimir Putin had said all we wanted to say.

But characteristic for a leader known for stunning reporters with out-of-the-blue statements, Putin had one epoch-making surprise up his sleeve.

The press conference was already over, hundreds of reporters had begun to pack their belongings and Putin's security detail moved in to protect the Russian number one.

But a reporter from Life News -- an outlet often accused of ties to Russia's security services -- dashed towards Putin from the front row.

"We decided to express our interest in what will happen to Mikhail Khodorkovsky," the Life News reporter explained to his website later in a video, referring to the jailed ex-oil tycoon and Kremlin critic.

Surrounded by humourless federal guard service officers, Putin turned with his back to most cameras in the room, and only a handful of journalists overheard his answer in what was more an informal chat than a briefing.

"Very recently he... addressed me with a request for pardon," Putin said matter-of-factly, as reporters who managed to get close to him -- mostly members of the Kremlin pool that sat in the front row at the presser -- began scribbling furiously.

"He mentioned humanitarian circumstances - his mother is ill," Putin said.

"I think given the circumstances we can take the decision and very soon the decree to pardon him will be signed."

The shocking news, instantly sent out by the small group of journalists, reached people in the rest of the room minutes later as they were already filing out of the press hall of Moscow's World Trade Center.

Many later pointed out that Putin could have mentioned the pardon when he answered the question of whether Khodorkovsky, who is due to be released from his Karelia penal colony next August, will be facing a third criminal case.

"Everyone was taken aback," said Kommersant FM correspondent Yelena Martyanova.

"For four hours we sat and listened... there were very few sharp questions. Then he says this and exits. Most likely, Life News knew what to ask," she said.

She added that the reporter also disappeared immediately without speaking with colleagues.

Questions about Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003 and was convicted in two controversial criminal probes, come up during each of Putin's annual news conferences.

The conferences are crowded affairs where more than a thousand reporters from all over Russia wave placards and balloons to get the president's attention.

Their length and format means they are regarded with a degree of horror by many in the Moscow press corps, while journalists from provincial papers use the opportunity to highlight local issues.

A journalist from Kemerovo on Friday presented Putin with a stuffed Yeti that local authorities say inhabits its mountains.

"When everything will be normal, in accordance with the law, Mikhail Borisovich (Khodorkovsky) will be free," Putin said at last year's conference.