Russian ex-tycoon Khodorkovsky requests parole

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Russia's once richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky requested release on parole after spending almost eight years in prison amid a renewal of intrigue in a case seen as a test of Russian commitment to rights.

The announcement of Khodorkovsky's move late on Monday came as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was expected to rule later Tuesday over whether his detention was politically motivated.

The supporters of Khodorkovsky, who turned Yukos into Russia's biggest oil firm before it was seized and broken up by the state, have long argued he was imprisoned as punishment for daring to challenge strongman Vladimir Putin.

"I ask you to examine the issue of my parole," Khodorkovsky said in a letter to a Moscow court, posted on his website

"The articles under which I have been convicted provide for this possibility once half the sentence has been completed," he added.

Khodorkovsky has been in detention since 2003 when he was arrested on his jet on the runway of a Siberian airport.

The former magnate and his co-accused Platon Lebedev are serving an eight year sentence issued in 2005 for tax evasion and are set to stay in jail until 2016 after receiving another 13 year sentence for fraud.

The parole request is based on the argument that the pair have already served over half of the new 13 year term, when time served is taken into account, and thus have the right for early release according to Russian law.

The Russian authorities have always brushed off widespread international criticism that the case is politically motivated with Prime Minister Putin bluntly declaring last year that a "thief must be in prison".

But intrigue has flared again in the last few days after a Russian television channel that is usually slavishly loyal to the Kremlin took the highly unusual step of broadcasting a report about Khodorkovsky, a virtually taboo subject.

The Central Television programme on the NTV channel, shown on prime time Sunday evening, broadcast a segment that included comments by Khodorkovsky's main lawyer and even written answers from the prisoner himself.

"This report could not have appeared without approval from above," the Vedomosti daily wrote Tuesday, describing it as "completely unexpected".

"Why are the authorities now allowing discussion of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev?" it asked.

Some analysts have detected a split between Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev over the issue. Medvedev, a lawyer by training, said this month that the release of Khodorkovsky would not pose a threat to society.

Khodorkovsky in his parole request insisted on his innocence, noting that he he was continuing to fight the case in the Russian supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights.

On Tuesday the ECHR, based in Strasbourg, is expected to consider Khodorkovsky's claims that his human rights have been breached by Russia.

Ruling on a complaint made in 2004, the court is due to judge whether Khodorkovsky suffered inhuman treatment in prison, and if his arrest was unlawful or politically-motivated.

Khodorkovsky had been scheduled for release this year before a Moscow court found him guilty on a second set of fraud charges in December that his legal team said were absurd.

A former aide to the court where the verdict was given at the end of 2010 sparked a furore earlier this year when she claimed that the judge had been ordered to give the verdict from on high.

Judge Viktor Danilkin -- who was ridiculed in some quarters for delivering the verdict a day before New Year's Eve in a barely audible mumble -- said he would live with the judgement until the "end of my days".

© 2011 AFP

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