It was a scene reminiscent of the Cold War. Thirty six hours after his release from a Russian penal colony near the Arctic Circle, where he had been serving a 10-year term for alleged fraud and tax evasion, Mikhail Khodorkovsky appeared before reporters in Berlin, just yards from the site of “Checkpoint Charlie”, the infamous crossing point on the Berlin Wall.
Addressing a press conference at the anti-communist Wall Museum, the freed Kremlin critic and former oligarch was noticeably pale, his hair in a convict’s close crop, but he was smiling.
In his first public appearance since being released, he said he was hugely grateful to his supporters including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher who had helped to secure his release. But the former boss of the now disbanded Yukos oil corporation, who once backed political opposition to the Kremlin, insisted that he would not attempt a return to politics. “I do not intend to get involved in politics. The struggle for power is not for me,” he said. Current opposition politics in Russia did not have a “strong perspective”, he said, but “it is better than 10 years ago”.
Mr Khodorkovsky, who until his release last Friday was Russia’s best-known political prisoner, said he wanted to work to secure the release of others. “Friends of mine are still in prison. There is a need to make sure that in Russia and in many other countries in the world there won’t be political prisoners,” he said. Western politicians visiting President Vladimir Putin’s Russia should be aware that “I am not the last political prisoner” in the country.
Once considered Russia’s richest man with assets estimated at $9bn (£5.5bn), in 2003 Mr Khodorkovsky began a 10-year sentence at a penal colony in the Karelia region of north-western Russia after he was convicted of fraud and tax evasion. He had consistently insisted he was innocent and that his conviction was politically motivated, as he had used some of his wealth to fund opposition parties.
Mr Khodorkovsky told the press conference he had been summoned by the penal camp authorities at 2am local time on Friday and told that he was free to go. He was driven to St Petersburg and under a deal arranged by Mr Genscher he was put aboard a private plane to Berlin only hours later.
He was pardoned under an amnesty for some 20,000 prisoners announced by Mr Putin. The ruling will also apply to two members of the jailed punk band Pussy Riot and to Greenpeace activists detained for protesting against Russian oil drilling in the Arctic.
The former oil tycoon insisted that an admission of guilt had not been a pre-condition for his release. He said he had consistently maintained that his conviction was unjust and said a “confession” would have implicated other Yukos employees still in prison and risked the possibility of further charges against them.
Despite his elation at being released, Mr Khodorkovsky clearly still felt intimidated by the Russian authorities. He went out of his way to avoid any strong criticism of Mr Putin, whom he merely described as a “ difficult person”. He said he had managed not to be “disproportionately emotional” during his imprisonment because his family was not being mistreated.
He was also guarded in his response to suggestions that Mr Putin had agreed to his release to avoid external criticism of Russian’s human rights record in the run up to the Sotchi winter Olympics.
He said it had been made “absolutely clear” to him prior to his release that he should leave Russia. Mr Khodorkovsky said he had not been encouraged by remarks from Mr Putin’s press spokesman who had insisted that he was free to return to Russia at any time. “If I return to Russia, there is no guarantee that I will be allowed to travel abroad freely,” he said.
It emerged on Sunday that Ms Merkel, an outspoken critic of Mr Putin’s human rights record, had played a key role in securing Mr Khodorkovsky’s release.
Mr Khodorkovsky’s wife is currently living in Switzerland and there were suggestions yesterday that he might seek a Swiss residence permit. His mother is being treated for cancer in Berlin.
The former oligarch was reunited with his son on Friday and has been given a German visa which allows him to stay in the country for a year. He said he had no plans to return to Russia at present. “I have been in prison for 10 years and I haven’t seen my family. Just give me a little time,” he told reporters on Sunday.