MOSCOW -- The tycoon who symbolized opposition to President Vladimir Putin was freed Friday from a decade of custody and spirited out of Russia in an operation that reminded some of the release of Soviet-era dissidents -- and seemed likely to mark the end of his political activity.
A day after Putin unexpectedly announced he was likely to free Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former co-owner of the Yukos oil company was put on a helicopter from his labour camp near the Finnish border, flown to St. Petersburg and then on to Berlin in a private jet.
The operation, which clears an unwanted distraction as Putin prepares to host the Olympic Winter Games in February, was carried out so swiftly and silently that by the time Khodorkovsky's lawyers arrived at the camp, he was already gone. His mother, who is undergoing cancer treatment in Germany, had not been told of his impending arrival there. She was in Moscow.
'Our lawyers wouldn't take it for granted and waited to see the official document of his release... They were not even told where he was heading'
-- Mikhail Khodorkovsky's senior
Khodorkovsky said in statement he had written to Putin on Nov. 12, asking for a pardon.
"The issue of admission of guilt was not raised," he said, thanking those who supported him and co-defendants he said were "unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted."
"I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned," he said.
Human rights activists said they were pleased Khodorkovsky had been released, but the manner in which it happened left them deflated.
"I already imagined crowds of people coming out to meet Misha in Moscow and was trying to think what assembly hall was big enough for his first news conference," Svetlana Gannushkina, a senior rights activist and Memorial Society board member said. "I was already imagining how all opposition forces would rally around this living symbol of courageous and selfless resistance to the regime. But my romantic expectations were short-lived."
Gannushkina and another leading activist, Lev Ponomaryov of the For Human Rights movement, cited parallels with the release of a pair of Soviet-era dissidents in 1986 that were among the first signs of reform under Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Ponomaryov said he was happy Khodorkovsky had been freed, "but I don't see any other signs of change with Putin in the Kremlin instead of Gorbachev."
Khodorkovsky's sentence was set to expire in less than a year, but prosecutors had said they were preparing a new case against him, alleging he had given instructions from prison for associates to use his money to change legislation in his favour.
Putin indicated Thursday a new case was unlikely to reach court. His decree pardoning Khodorkovsky was published on the Kremlin's website Friday morning.
When a team of lawyers arrived in the early afternoon at the prison gates at Segezha labour camp with a copy of the decree in their hands, they were told their client was gone.
"Our lawyers wouldn't take it for granted and waited to see the official document of his release," Khodorkovsky's senior lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were not even told where he was heading."
They found out later he was on his way to St. Petersburg and then to Berlin.
Among those still imprisoned is the former co-owner of Yukos, Platon Lebedev, whose prison term expires next April, and Alexei Pichugin, former Yukos security chief, who is serving a life sentence for organizing three contract murders.
-- Los Angeles Times