Putin Frees Political Prisoner Khodorkovsky Amid Sinking Russian Image

Russia has 50 days until Sochi Olympics to improve its international image.

Former Yukos oil giant CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky smiles towards massed photographers from a court room glass dock in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 31, 2009.
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A man once considered one of Russia's richest who has sat in jail for a decade after funding government opposition movements is now free, following the announcement of a formal pardon by President Vladimir Putin that some see as an attempt to bolster Russia's floundering image.

A lawyer for former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said his client had been released from a penal colony near Finland, where he was serving his 9-year sentence after being arrested in 2003 on a Siberian runway on charges of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement, reports state news service RIA Novosti. He was sentenced in 2005 to a prison term to end in 2014. At a press conference on Thursday, Putin said he granted the pardon on humanitarian grounds, crediting Khodorkovsky's time served, his ailing mother, and some new paperwork.

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"In line with the law, Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] should have signed the necessary document [asking for a pardon], which he didn't do," said Putin. "But recently he signed this document, and it was addressed to me with an appeal for clemency."

The BBC reports Khodorkovsky specifically requested the pardon to see his sick mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya. She told Russian news channel Rossiya 23 that she had not yet processed the information fully.

"I didn't expect it, yesterday was just a day of shock," she said.

The pardon goes into effect as soon as it is signed.

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While incarcerated Khodorkovsy, 50, made name for himself as a political thinker and columnist on the state of post-Soviet Russia. Many of his supporters, including his lawyers, expressed surprise at news of the announcement. The former tycoon has always maintained his innocence.

The pardon comes almost exactly 50 days before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The country has come under international criticism for its anti-gay laws, with countries such as the United States boycotting sending senior government delegates to the games. President Barack Obama announced this week the U.S. representatives would include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as well as openly gay athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, an ice hockey silver medalist. Figure skater Brian Boitano, who came out as gay on Thursday, will also join the delegation.

Thursday's pardon followed a move of wide-ranging amnesty by the Russian parliament for at least 20,000 prisoners, reports the BBC.

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