MOSCOW, Russia — Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky walked free from prison on Friday, Russian news agencies reported, marking an end to a decade-long imprisonment that symbolized President Vladimir Putin's heavy-handed rule and helped consolidate domestic and international criticism.
The president signed a decree on Friday pardoning the ex-billionaire, a day after he shocked observers with a surprise announcement that Khodorkovsky had asked for clemency due to his mother's ill heath.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer said he had left his penal colony in Russia’s far north by midday Friday.
“We have just received official confirmation from the colony’s leadership that Mikhail Borisovich was released and has left the colony,” Vadim Klyuvgant told the RIA Novosti state news agency.
It was not immediately clear where the former oligarch was headed, although Klyuvgant confirmed that “his place of residence is in Moscow.”
Prison officials said in a statement that Khodorkovsky had flown immediately to Germany to be with his mother, who is reportedly receiving medical treatment there. Neither his spokesperson nor German officials could confirm that account, however, according to The Associated Press.
The mystery was finally solved when Khodorkovsky was shown shaking hands with German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher:
Khodorkovsky made a statement, referring to those who were "unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted." He did not admit guilt, but said he had asked Putin for a pardon because of "family circumstances."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was "happy" about his release.
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Thursday’s news of Khodorkovsky’s imminent release stunned observers here. The former oil tycoon is considered by many to be Putin’s archenemy and once the single greatest political threat to the Kremlin.
He was arrested at gunpoint on a Siberian tarmac in 2003, then convicted in two separate trials of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion in a case critics say represented the worst of Russia’s legal system and Putin’s turn toward authoritarianism.
Like many of his contemporaries, Khodorkovsky rose from ordinary beginnings. His first move as a rising star in the Komsomol Soviet youth organization was to open a café under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika before starting a computer reselling business.
His most prominent step, however, came in the USSR's twilight years, when he founded Menatep, one of Russia’s first privately owned banks. It eventually acquired Yukos, his oil producer.
He was not always the golden boy among Russia’s oligarchs, however.
Many accused him of the same cronyism and tough management style to which most of his contemporaries resorted during the “wild 1990s." Although few who acquired major assets during that time did so transparently, Khodorkovsky's image was as one of the most ruthless.
However, that criticism gave way to measured praise of Khodorkovsky’s later efforts to transform Yukos – which in the early 2000s was on its way to rivaling international oil majors – into a relatively transparent operation that adhered to Western-style accounting.
Before his arrest, Yukos was set to merge with another oil company, Sibneft, which would have spawned one of the world’s largest oil producers.
Many critics say the last straw for Putin, who sought to renationalize the country’s resources, came after Khodorkovsky publicly railed about widespread corruption in the government during a meeting with the president.
Although Khodorkovsky has previously said he would not seek a future in politics if released, many opposition activists now see the ex-oligarch as a moral compass and a potential guiding force for the scattered anti-Kremlin movement.
Ironically, his release coincides with Russia’s Day of Security Service Workers, which marks the anniversary of the 1917 founding of the Soviet-era precursor to the KGB.