Putin Frees Former Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from Russian prison camp following a pardon from Vladimir Putin. For the first time in 10 years, the former oil tycoon is a free man and is reunited with his family in Germany.

The former chief executive of Yukos Oil was one of Putin’s biggest political enemies. Putin’s pardon came as a surprise given that two weeks ago additional criminal charges against Khodorkovsky were in the works.

In 2004, Khodorkovsky was ranked the wealthiest man in Russia (despite having been arrested in 2003). In a televised meeting at the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky debated Putin over government corruption and implied that officials were accepting millions in bribes. How did that go over? Putin was quoted saying to a former head of BP “I have eaten more dirt than I need to from that man.” Trumped up embezzlement and money laundering charges followed, and before you could say “lack of due process,” a speedy trial and sentencing led to his arrest. Khodorkovsky lodged numerous petitions to the European Court of Human Rights. As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country?”

Is this merely a kind-hearted pardoning from a once cold-hearted man?

Freeing his most powerful critic from Penal Colony No. 7 at Segezha deep in the sub-Arctic forest near the Finnish border could deflect international complaints about Putin’s human rights record as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics at Sochi, a mere few weeks away. (Coincidence that Pussy Riot is also scheduled to be released?)

In an act of defiance, Khodorkovsky thanked people for their support. “To me, my family and all those who were unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted.”

Amnesty International named Khodorkovsky a “prisoner of conscience,” and the oil baron was considered the Russian equivalent of anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela. But unlike Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” through excited crowds after his 1990 prison release, Khodorkovsky swiftly jumped onto a private jet for Germany to be reunited with his family. Maybe the Mandela comparison is a bit extreme (one was an anti-apartheid revolutionary, while the other accumulated grand wealth through drilling oil), but Khodorkovsky represented the Kremlin’s misuse of the judicial system, curbing the law, and of its refusal to permit dissent. His arrest was personal: Khodorkovsky was Putin’s prisoner, the demonstration of the absolute power of one man in the Kremlin who enjoys his omnipotence.

Let the games begin?

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