MOSCOW (AP) — Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the archrival of President Vladimir Putin and once Russia's richest man, has been released from prison after a decade behind bars, his spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Friday.
In his time in prison on politically tinged charges of taxes and embezzlement, Khodorkovsky turned from a powerful oligarch into a respected dissident, becoming a political thinker who argued for social justice and placed the blame on Putin for Russia's stagnating economy. It wasn't clear whether Khodorkovsky would continue his opposition to the Kremlin — or even where he is headed in the short term.
Putin's announcement less than 24 hours before that Khodorkovsky would be pardoned appeared to catch both the public and Khodorkovsky's lawyers by surprise. His release was equally shrouded in mystery. Several hours before, Khodorkovsky's lawyers and family said they still had no idea when he would be let out.
His spokeswoman Olga Pispanen later confirmed his release, but said she did not have any further details. Khodorkovsky's spokeswoman and legal team still would not say where he is and when he will be home.
Putin told reporters that Khodorkovsky applied for the pardon because his mother's health is deteriorating. The Kremlin's website published a decree Friday morning saying that Putin was "guided by the principles of humanity" when he decided to pardon Khodorkovsky.
The pardon appeared to be a sudden turnaround for the Kremlin, which has vigorously prosecuted Khodorkovsky since his arrest in 2003, in what has widely been considered to be Putin's retribution for the tycoon's political ambitions.
The development — along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship — appears aimed at easing international criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin's pet project.
Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man, worth billions of dollars, and the CEO of the country's largest oil company when he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion.
During Putin's first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbor personal political ambitions. His actions defied an unwritten pact between Putin and a narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed "oligarchs," under which the government refrained from reviewing privatization deals that made the group enormously rich.
Khodorkovsky's oil company Yukos was effectively crushed under the weight of a $28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off. Most of it went to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control of the country's oil business as well as stifle an inconvenient voice.
Khodorkovsky's current net worth is unknown, but likely it's at most a mere shadow of his onetime fortune.
Leonid Chizhov contributed to this report