Vladimir Putin said yesterday he would pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who has languished in jail on tax evasion and embezzlement charges since challenging the president's authority a decade ago, as he announced a raft of amnesties ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Mr Khodorkovsky, who is widely viewed as Mr Putin's most prominent foe, joins a number of high-profile prisoners, including the Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who will be released ahead of the February Games.
"He has served more than 10 years, that is a serious term, I think that a decision must be made (on a pardon)," Mr Putin said in apparently off-the-cuff comments at the end of a four-hour press conference.
Mr Khodorkovsky had never before submitted an appeal for clemency, but had "written such a document very recently", Mr Putin said.
A source close to Mr Khodorkovsky said that the former oligarch appealed for a pardon because his 79-year-old mother Marina had cancer. The source added that if the petition was successful it should be granted in the next few days.
Mr Khodorkovsky, currently in a remote camp north of the Arctic Circle in Karelia, was one of the original "oligarchs" to amass fabulous wealth and power in the rough-and-tumble privatisations of state property that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Starting out as a small entrepreneur running a cafe, he quickly rose to control his own bank, Menatep, through which he acquired control of Yukos, Russia's largest oil company.
But when Mr Putin arrived in the Kremlin determined to curb the power of the oligarchs, the two men found themselves on a collision course over management of the oil and gas sector and governance of the country, with Mr Khodorkovsky increasingly looking like a potential rival for the presidency.
By late 2003, the relationship between the two men was at breaking point, and in October that year a convoy of special forces surrounded Mr Khodorkovsky's private jet on the tarmac at Novosibirsk airport and arrested him at gunpoint.
He was subsequently sentenced to nine years for tax evasion after a controversial trial in 2005. In 2010, he received a second 12-year sentence on charges of embezzling a vast amount of oil. That was later reduced on appeal and Mr Khodorkovsky was due to finish his term in August next year.
Time did not seem to cool relations with the two men, with Mr Khodorkovsky regularly issuing statements from prison accusing Mr Putin of rolling back democracy. Mr Putin, in turn, has angrily batted aside questions about the oligarch in previous press conferences.
The pardon move came a day after Russia's parliament approved a wide-ranging amnesty of those accused of non-violent crimes that would release some of the country's highest profile prisoners.
Mr Putin confirmed that the amnesty would include Pussy Riot's Ms Alyokhina and Ms Tolokonnikova, despite what he called their "disgraceful" punk performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012.
"I feel sorry for them not only because they are in prison, but because they degraded themselves," Mr Putin said. He added that the 30 Greenpeace activists arrested by Russian forces after a protest at a Russian oil rig in January would also be going home -- although he added that he hoped their ordeal in jail had "taught them a lesson".
All three cases have drawn sharp criticism from Western governments and Amnesty International. Observers said the amnesties appeared to be an effort to win over international opinion ahead of the Winter Olympics -- a pet project that Mr Putin is anxious to see pass off smoothly.
Several leaders, including President Barack Obama, have announced that they will not attend the opening ceremony on February 7, in what seems to be a calculated snub amid growing concern about Russia's human rights record. (© Daily Telegraph, London)