Tycoon pledges to free Khodorkovsky if elected president

15th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who this week announced he would challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency, said on Thursday his first move if elected would be to free jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Ranked Russia's third richest man by Forbes magazine with a fortune of $18 billion, Prokhorov surprised Russians last week by saying he would seek to challenge Putin's grip on power in March presidential polls.

"The first decision I would take if I am elected president would be humanitarian -- I will pardon Khodorkovsky," said the 46-year-old owner of New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Khodorkovsky is set to stay in jail until 2016 after being convicted in two fraud trials which supporters say were ordered by the authorities after he dared oppose Putin.

Prokhorov's intention to run in the election widely expected to hand victory to Putin raised eyebrows since a brush with politics earlier this year ended in controversy.

In September, Prokhorov resigned as leader of a Kremlin-linked party accusing the Kremlin's top spindoctor Vladislav Surkov of engineering his downfall and stifling political debate in the country.

Sceptics believe Prokhorov is running as a Kremlin-friendly candidate to soak up opposition to Putin, but the energetic tycoon said he was not afraid of his strong opponent.

"I am pleased to take on those who are stronger than me. For now," he told reporters.

He said he agreed with protesters who took to the streets earlier this month that December 4 parliamentary polls had been falsified in favour of Putin's party, adding he may take part in an opposition protest in Moscow on December 24.

Prokhorov, long described as Russia's most eligible bachelor, joked that he was even prepared to give up his single status if needed to win Russia's top job.

"If this is needed for the country and victory in the presidential elections, I am ready even for that," he said.

Prokhorov still needs to collect two million signatures to be able to run.

© 2011 AFP

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