Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday pardoned jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a high-profile political prisoner since 2003.

Khodorkovsky, founder of the Yukos oil company and a critic of the ruling regime, was arrested for fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

His sentence was set to end in August next year.

Putin said Thursday at a news conference that he planned to pardon Khodorkovsky, who left prison Friday shortly after Putin signed the order for his release.

Khodorkovsky became rich when he bought oil and bank assets from the Russian state in the 1990s. At his height, his wealth was estimated at $15 billion.

After Putin came to power in 2000, Khodorkovsky criticized him for abandoning reforms. The oligarch was also accused of bankrolling opposition parties.

Khodorkovsky was arrested at an airport in Siberia in 2003 and put on trial twice, first for tax evasion and fraud in 2005 and then in 2010 for stealing the oil produced by Yukos when he led the company.

After Khodorkovsky’s fall, Yukos was put into bankruptcy under a $26 billion bill for back taxes. Most of the company’s assets were sold in auction to Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company.

The unexpected pardon is seen as an attempt to blunt criticism of Russia’s human rights record in advance of the February Olympics in Sochi.

On Thursday, Putin said Khodorkovsky had asked for clemency because his mother is sick.


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