Khodorkovsky to stay out of Russia, help jailed dissidents

22nd December 2013, Comments 0 comments

Russia's former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Sunday after walking free from a decade in prison he would stay away from his homeland but help free political prisoners still behind bars in the country.

In an astonishing turn of events, the Kremlin critic surfaced in Germany hours after his release on Friday from a prison in an obscure corner of northern Russia, following a pardon by President Vladimir Putin.

Mobbed by reporters at his first news conference in Berlin since his release, Khodorkovsky admitted he had been given no choice over his final destination and thanked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for aiding his liberation.

Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man, said he had no intention of becoming involved in Russian politics and could not return to the country so long as a court order for him to pay $550 million in damages was still in place.

"A fight for power is not for me," said Khodorkovsky, wearing a sharp business suit but almost shaven-headed, at the news conference at the Berlin Wall museum at the symbolic Cold War location of Checkpoint Charlie.

He said he would focus his energies on helping political prisoners walk out of Russian jails. "I will do everything so that there are none left, do everything I can."

He added that Western governments should "remember I am not the last political prisoner in Russia," adding it would be wrong if he was seen as a "symbol" that there were no longer political prisoners in his country.

Rights groups are still seeking to secure the release of around a dozen protesters arrested for their role in a rally in 2012 on the eve of Putin's inauguration for a third term, who many see as political prisoners.

Khodorkovsky's co-accused, business partner and friend Platon Lebedev also remains behind bars.

The former chief executive and founder of the Yukos oil giant said he had no plans to return to business but had enough means to live on.

He thanked Merkel for working on his release. He said that he had been granted a German visa for one year but had not decided on his future travel plans.

"She (Merkel) made it possible for me to be free today," he said as well as thanking former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher who held secret talks with Putin to win the release.

Asked about his relationship with Putin, Khodorkovsky refused to be drawn into expressing hatred towards the Russian strongman who the former tycoon's supporters accuse of ordering his two trials and convictions in order to eliminate a potentially dangerous opponent.

At the time of his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky was openly critical of Putin and had begun financing the Russian opposition.

But he said that while he had been treated harshly, "my family had never been touched".

Khodorkovsky said he was against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, noting a "festival of sport should not be spoilt". But he acknowledged it should not become a "festival of Vladimir Putin".

Will not fight for Yukos assets

In his first media interview since his release, Khodorkovsky revealed he had made clear his intention to stay out of politics in his request for a pardon from Putin and would not seek the return of Yukos assets which were seized by the state and bought by state oil firm Rosneft.

"I wrote in my papers what I have repeatedly said publicly: I am not going into politics and not going to fight for the return of (his former oil firm) Yukos assets," he told the opposition magazine The New Times.

Khodorkovsky indicated that Moscow had wanted him out of the country and said he will not return home until he is certain he can leave again in full security.

"From an objective point of view, I will return only if I am certain that I will be able to leave when necessary," he told the magazine.

Putin's spokesman said he was free to come back. "He is free to return to Russia. Absolutely," Dmitry Peskov told AFP.

On Saturday, the 50-year-old was reunited with his parents, 79-year-old mother Marina and 80-year-old father Boris, who travelled to Berlin from Moscow, and with his eldest son Pavel, who lives in the United States.

'A film could not have done it better'

Khodorkovsky, widely seen as Russia's most famous post-Soviet inmate, was jailed for financial crimes in separate convictions in 2005 and 2010. He had been due for release in August 2014.

Putin shocked Russia on Thursday by saying that, after a decade behind bars, his fierce opponent had turned to him for a pardon on humanitarian grounds.

Khodorkovsky acknowledged his lighting-quick exit was stage-managed. "If someone wanted to make a movie about the 1970s and the deportation of a dissident you could not have done it better," he told the New Times.

Khodorkovsky's release came amid intense activity in Russia in an apparent bid to improve its image ahead of the Olympics and its chairmanship of the G8 next year, with parliament also approving a major amnesty.

Two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band are expected to be freed under the amnesty that comes less than two months before the Olympic Games start in Sochi.

Thirty Greenpeace activists, arrested on hooliganism charges after a protest against Arctic oil drilling, are also expected to escape prosecution.

© 2013 AFP

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