Moscow: Russia's most famous prisoner and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky reportedly walked out of jail on Friday after spending more than 10 years behind bars, following a surprise pardon by President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Putin pardoned Russia's former richest man on Friday, a day after stunning the country by saying the former tycoon asked for clemency on humanitarian grounds as his mother was ill.
"Guided by humanitarian principles, I decree that Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky ... should be pardoned and freed from any further punishment in the form of imprisonment," said the decree signed by Putin and published by the Kremlin.
Less than a half hour later, Khodorkovsky, 50, walked out of his prison colony in the town of Segezha in the Karelia region of north-western Russia, the Interfax news agency reported citing a local security source.
But Khodorkovsky's lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said he could neither confirm nor deny this information., and prison officials declined immediate comment.
The Federal Service for the Execution of Punishment, which runs Russia's prisons issued a statement confirming that Khodorkovsky's sentence had been terminated, but not explicitly confirming he had walked free from the camp.
In line with Mr Putin's decree, Khodorkovsky "has been freed from the further serving of his punishment in the form of imprisonment" it said in a statement on its website.
What role Khodorkovsky will play in Russia after his release is unclear, but it is appears certain that Mr Putin would never had allowed his freedom if he was seen as a threat.
Khodorkovsky's 79-year-old mother Marina, who was caught off guard by Mr Putin's announcement, said she was still trying to fathom what was happening.
"It has not sunk in yet," Marina Khodorkovskaya said in remarks broadcast on state television. Speaking in a shaky voice, she said she was taking sedatives to calm her nerves.
"God, he had mercy," exclaimed mass-circulation newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in a banner headline.
'Secret services met Khodorkovsky'
Khodorkovsky had been due to be released in August 2014 but Russian prosecutors earlier this month raised the threat of a third trial for the former tycoon on money-laundering charges.
Mr Putin told reporters said on Thursday that he saw no prospects for the third case.
The circumstances of the pardon also remained murky. The former chief of the Yukos oil company had repeatedly said he would not ask Mr Putin for a pardon because it would be tantamount to admitting guilt.
The broadsheet Kommersant, citing unnamed sources, said on Friday that Khodorkovsky had decided to seek a pardon after a recent meeting with representatives of Russia's security services, who had raised the menace of a third trial against him.
Members of the security services had met with Khodorkovsky, and had told him the health of his cancer-striken mother was worsening and warned him about a possible third criminal case against him.
"It would be interesting to understand what he feels right now," Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on his blog, hailing how he had carried "himself with such astonishing dignity all these 10 years."
'Putin's trump card'
Economists and political analysts put the release down to Kremlin's attempt to improve its dismal rights record and international image before the Winter Olympic Games Russia is hosting in Sochi in February. While Khodorkovsky's release was a watershed moment, it would not dramatically change Russia's battered investment climate or international image, they said.
"It is a very important signal," said prominent economist Sergei Guriev, who co-wrote a critical report on Khodorkovsky's second conviction in 2010. "In and of itself it will not change anything but it will give hope to investors." Guriev told AFP in emailed comments.
Earlier This year Professor Guriev had fled to France after coming under pressure from investigators for his role in the Khodorkovsky report.
The Eurasia Group consultancy said the former tycoon's release was a "charm offensive" before the Sochi Olympics amid reports thatheads of major states like world leaders such as US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande would not attend.will not be in attendance.
Business daily Vedomosti compared the called the announcement to "a trump card" Mr Putin pulled out of his sleeve at a critical moment. "Khodorkovsky personally no longer presents a threat to the system." it said, noting that his release would not "heal the wounds inflicted on the economy and society 10 years ago."
Supporters have said that Khodorkovsky had been thrown into jail and found guilty in two separate trials for daring to finance opposition to the Russian strongman.
Khodorkovsky was snatched off his corporate plane in 2003 soon after Putin warned business people to stay out of oligarchs against meddling in politics. He and business partner Platon Lebedev were convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005. Khodorkovsky was convicted of embezzlement in a second trial in 2010. and had been due for release in August.