|Mikhail Khodorkovsky 'exhausted but happy to be free' after Putin's pardon|
|Friday, 20 December 2013 20:49|
Former oligarch's release and flight to Berlin proceeds like military operation amid rumours and misinformation
Like his arrest in 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release was akin to a military operation. Then, masked special forces stormed his private jet as it stood refuelling on the tarmac at a Siberian airport. On Friday, he walked free, but his release and subsequent flight to Germany remained shrouded in secrecy.
The former oligarch arrived in Berlin on Friday afternoon, after his surprise pardon by Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. He touched down in Schöenefeld airport on a chartered flight, where he was met by former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had helped organise his travel. The German embassy in Moscow had facilitated the trip, reportedly fast-tracking his visa application.
Genscher told Der Spiegel that Khodorkovsky was "exhausted, but very happy to finally be free".
Khodorkovsky issued a statement via Facebook saying that he had asked the Russian president to pardon him for personal reasons and was glad of the positive decision. He emphasised, however, that "the issue of admission of guilt was not raised". For many years Khodorkovsky has refused to ask for a pardon, as doing so requires a de facto admission of guilt.
Russia's former richest man personally thanked Genscher for his support and spoke of how much he was looking forward to "the minute when I will be able to hug my close ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates".
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists in Moscow on Friday evening the president had received two documents from Khodorkovsky last month: a request for a pardon, and a "long" handwritten letter "with his explanation". Peskov declined to reveal the contents of the letter.
"Of course any request for pardon is a significant decision that requires a lot of thinking," said Peskov, adding that Putin had decided to act favourably "on humanitarian grounds". "He committed a very serious crime, but he has served a very serious sentence for it."
Peskov denied any kind of deal had been struck to ensure the former oligarch remain in exile: "I don't know why he flew to Germany but it's his personal decision. A Russian citizen cannot be forbidden from returning to Russia, of course."
The recent chatter in Moscow had been of a new, third case against Khodorkovsky – named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International – designed to keep him behind bars when the sentence he had been serving ran out next August. Instead, following Thursday's shock announcement that he planned to release the oligarch, Putin signed a decree which pardoned Khodorkovskyon Friday morning. That sparked a day of rumours and misinformation, during which there were hours of abject confusion about Khodorkovsky's whereabouts.
Journalists gathered outside the prison in Segezha, northern Russia, where the former tycoon had been serving his time, but did not see him leave. Later, there were rumours that he had boarded a helicopter at the local airfield and was headed to St Petersburg. Russia's prison service put out a statement saying that Khodorkovsky had flown to Germany, where his mother was receiving medical treatment.
The confusion lifted only briefly, however, as it soon became apparent that Khodorkovsky's mother is in fact currently at her home just outside Moscow. Genscher later said that in the rush to issue his release, Khodorkovsky hadn't realised that his mother had already finished treatment in Berlin's Charité Campus Virchow clinic, and had been discharged on 11 December. Marina Khodorkovsky told Reuters she was ready to fly anywhere to meet her son. : "I want to just hug him. I don't even know yet what I am going to say to him." She is due to fly to Berlin to be with her husband today.
The private plane Khodorkovsky flew in to Berlin is owned by the German businessman Ulrich Bettermann. Bettermann, Genscher and Khodorkovsky met at an event at Berlin's Hotel Adlon in 2003, where Khodorkovsky had spoken in highly critical terms about corruption and party finances in Russia.
Genscher's spokesperson, Nicola Maier, released a statement welcoming Putin's decision, describing it as "significant and very encouraging". It revealed that Genscher had met Putin in person twice to talk about Khodorkovsky, and that he had been aided in his efforts by chancellor Angela Merkel, the former German foreign minister and Berlin's ambassador in Moscow. Merkel's spokesperson said: "The chancellor welcomes Mikhail Khodorkovsky's release. Over the last few years she has repeatedly lobbied the Russian president for Mr Khodorkovsky's release."
In Moscow, opposition-linked political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said there were only cynical motives for Putin's decision to free Khodorkovsky. "Putin has seen there is a real problem with his and Russia's image in the west, and the Olympic games are coming. This was a carefully planned decision timed to happen just before Christmas, so everybody could write about it, think how great it is, and then forget about it in the new year."
Oreshkin noted that Khodorkovsky's sentence was due to come to an end in nine months, and he is confident Russian officials had "given him no option" but to ask for a pardon. "Previously, Khodorkovsky has always refused to ask for a pardon, as it would suggest he recognises the legitimacy of the system and of the court cases against him. Whether they threatened him with a new case and a further seven or eight years in prison, or whether it was a statement about his mother's failing health, who knows."
On Friday evening, Khodorkovsky called the editorial offices of Russian magazine the New Times, which has published a series of his sketches from prison. He said: "After 10 years, I now have an unbelievable feeling of freedom. I am grateful to you and to everyone who supported me all this time … I love everyone, I am happy. The most important thing now is freedom, freedom, freedom."
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