Replying to a letter from opposition Liberal Democrat chief Guido Westerwelle, Merkel said the government in Berlin would continue to use its good working relationship with the Russian president to push for a speedy improvement of conditions for Khodorkovsky who's serving an 8-year sentence in a prison camp in Siberia after being convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement.
In a letter to FDP chief Westerwelle, German chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that she had repeatedly pointed out to Russian president Vladimir Putin that prison conditions for Khodorkovsky - once the richest man in Russia - were simply unacceptable.
She urged the Russian government to adhere to international standards. The founder of the former top oil producer Yukos is serving his prison sentence in Siberia in very harsh conditions meant to isolate him completely from the outer world.
Former Liberal Democrat justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger who's now a legal rights spokesperson has been following the Khodorkovsky case very closely and shares the widely held opinion that the recent liquidation of the Yukos firm and the way Khodorkovsky is being treated are the Kremlin's retaliation for the latter's long-standing opposition to president Putin
Punishment for Putin opposition?
"He was placed in solitary confinement several times," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. "And he's being treated in a very arbitrary way. If he drinks his tea in the wrong place, he faces severe punishment, for instance. And then there was the incident in which he was attacked with a knife by another inmate and injured in his face. Which goes to show that Khodorkovsky isn't safe in this camp, and this is what we're criticizing and what needs to be changed."
Along with FDP chief Guido Westerwelle, Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger wants the government in Berlin to raise the issue more clearly with the Kremlin
"The chancellor deserves some credit for at least calling Khodorkovsky's prison conditions unacceptable," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. "But I do believe that the government has to do more than just casually mentioning the issue in talks with the Russian president."
Calls for increased EU pressure
"There are EU-wide initiatives by politicians with much stronger criticism of the Kremlin's policy, and chancellor Merkel should also step up her efforts to influence Putin. Because we all know that nothing happens in Khodorkovsky's camp without his knowledge and consent."
The Khodorkovsky case was also reported to have been touched upon during the recent visit to Germany by US president George W. Bush. He put the case in the wider context of Russia's poor human rights record and promised that he would not tire of telling Putin what he didn't approve of, but he didn't think much of pillorying the Russian president in public.
"Nobody likes to be lectured a lot. If you want to be effective, what you don't go is scold the person publicly all the time. You remind him where we may have a difference of opinion, and you do so in a respectful way. So you can then sit down and have a constructive dialogue," Bush said.
Germany's ruling and opposition parties are in agreement that it's vital to show the Kremlin that Khodorkovsky's fate is being followed closely in the west and that any irregularities will draw even more criticism from leaders here.