Russia’s Most Famous Political Prisoner—Now a Free Man

On December 20, 2013, a small private plane owned by OBO Bettermann, a German company, landed at Berlin Schönefeld Airport. Its sole passenger was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos oil company and the Open Russia Foundation—and, until this week, modern Russia’s most famous political prisoner.

“I would like to thank everyone who has been following the Yukos case all these years for the support you provided to me, my family, and all those who were unjustly convicted and continue to be persecuted,” Khodorkovsky said in his first statement as a free man. “I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to hug my close ones and personally shake hands with all my friends and associates. I am constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned … I will welcome the opportunity to celebrate this upcoming holiday season with my family. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

Khodorkovsky’s release, after more than a decade in prisons and labor camps on charges that were universally viewed as politically motivated, came after a presidential pardon—crucially, without an admission of “guilt.” Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s son, Pavel, who has not seen him since 2003, called it “the best Christmas gift I could have wished for in the past ten years.”

Meanwhile, in Moscow this week, four of the 28 accused in the “Bolotnaya Square case” have been granted an amnesty. Four more will be amnestied in the next few days. All those accused in the Greenpeace “Artic 30” case have been amnestied. Next week, the two imprisoned members of the Pussy Riot punk band are expected be released.

The nature of the political and judicial system in Russia remains unchanged. The amnesty that was passed was not nearly wide enough. Most of the political prisoners remain behind bars—including those accused in the “Bolotnaya case,” and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s former business associate, Platon Lebedev. All of them must have their freedom.

But, despite everything, this is a huge positive step for Russia, and a huge victory for those who have waited—and worked—so long for this day. This is a time to celebrate freedom for those who have been deprived of it unjustly.

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