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Early freedom

Markian Ostaptschuk / sadDecember 20, 2012

A Moscow court has unexpectedly reduced the prison sentence of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky by two years. Observers and human rights advocates continue to demand immediate release.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars during trial
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Russian court's decision on Thursday (20.12.2012) means that Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, will be released from prison in 2014. Khodorkovsky's sentence was reduced from 11 to 13 years, while the sentence for his former business partner, Platon Lebedev, was also trimmed by two years. Prosecutors had applied for the reduction on the basis of an apparent change in criminal code.

Gernot Erler, acting chair of the Social Democratic Party in the German parliament, welcomed the decision. "I believe that this decision will be accepted with gratification around the world, especially after long-held expectations of a release for Khodorkovsky, if necessary through clemency proceedings," said the Eastern Europe expert in an interview with DW.

German parliamentarian Gernot Erler speaking in parliament
German parliamentarian Erler welcomed the decisionImage: dapd

Khodorkovsky has sat in prison long enough for his fiscal offenses, Erler thinks. "And new lawsuits are continually being prepared and opened. As it has in the past, this is being seen as a political process," Erler said.

Release demanded

Khodorkovsky's lawyers have continually demanded the release of their client. They have now announced that they will lodge a new appeal against this decision, continuing to insist on the innocence of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.

Human rights advocates had criticized the proceedings as a show trial, with Amnesty International since 2003 recognizing the two men as political prisoners and calling for their release.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a respected Russian human rights advocate, shares this view. "They should not be freed as late as 2014. They should never have been thrown in prison in the first place," Alexeyeva said.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva at a press conference in Moscow
Alexeyeva is also a veteran of the Soviet dissident movementImage: Egor Winogradov

Alexeyeva, who is a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, doesn't see Khodorkovsky getting back into politics upon his release. Rather, she thinks that he'll become more active for the cause of human rights.

Putin takes stance

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference after the decision that the sentence reduction was the result of a change in law.

"I am confident that everything will be fine and in accordance with the law, and Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] will be freed,” Mr Putin said. “God give him good health.”

“There was no personal persecution,” Putin said at the press conference. The case against Khodorkovsky was purely about fiscal crimes, and was not a "political case," Putin asserted. The Russian president added that he had never interfered with the work of the law enforcement authorities.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev accuse the judiciary of placing prominence on their case due to their conflict with President Putin. Observers believe that the Russian leadership intended to use the legal proceedings to increase its influence over the lucrative oil business - Khodorkovsky was head of oil company Yukos and one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs when he was taken into custody in 2003.

Vladimir Putin speaking during annual press conference in Moscow, 2012
Putin focused on financial charges against KhodorkovskyImage: Reuters

Nine years and counting

When Khodorkovsky was detained in 2003, he was Russia's richest man. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev in 2005 were found guilty of, among other counts, serious fraud and formation of organized crime. Each was sentenced to nine years at prison camp, and Yukos was dismantled.

In 2009, a second lawsuit against the two accused them of misappropriating 218 million tons of oil. At the end of 2010, five years were added to the sentences, for a total of 14 years each.

In May 2011, a Russian appeals court unexpectedly reduced the sentence of each by one year. That same year, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights assessed the case against Khodorkovsky as not politically motivated, but did recognize that there were violations in the detention and investigation.

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