MOSCOW — He was once Russia's richest man and, by some measures, President Vladimir Putin's most potent foe.
By Thursday, when Putin said he was likely to grant clemency to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that was all long in the past. Both Khodorkovsky's power and the source of his wealth have been lost over the course of a decade in prison, and Putin's position as Russia's leader is more secure than ever.
Khodorkovsky's release would signal an end to a remarkable saga that has been one of the hallmarks of Putin's tenure, and has led to international condemnation of what many view as a high-profile violation of human rights.
Surprising reporters at the end of his wide-ranging annual news conference, Putin said Khodorkovsky had sent him a letter asking for clemency, which he probably would grant within the next few days. Khodorkovsky's lawyer and mother both said they were aware of no such letter.
"His more than 10 years of imprisonment is a serious punishment and he referred to humanitarian circumstances," Putin said as he strode out of the room after his press session, which ran more than four hours. "His mother is sick and … I think the decision can be taken and a decree pardoning him will be signed in the near future."
The Russian Prosecutor General's Office said early this month that investigators were preparing a new case against Khodorkovsky, alleging that he had given instructions from his prison cell for associates to use his money to change Russian legislation in his favor. Khodorkovsky's current term is set to end in less than a year.
In two previous cases, he was convicted of tax evasion, fraud and money laundering. Since 2003, the former chief executive of the now-defunct Yukos oil company has been languishing in Moscow prisons and then in prison camps, first in eastern Siberia and currently in the northern Karelia region.
Human rights activists and liberal political leaders have argued that both trials were politically motivated and that Khodorkovsky was being punished for daring to oppose Putin.
Putin said at the news conference that he didn't know the details of the new investigation of Khodorkovsky but implied that the case was unlikely to reach the courts. "I don't understand what kind of case it can be," the president said. "I heard something but I don't see anything dangerous for anybody there."
The news appeared to take both Khodorkovsky's family and lawyers by surprise.
"Until today, we were totally unaware either of his letter or the president's clemency," Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, told The Times by telephone in a voice that trembled with emotion. "I am so happy. I don't care what happened and why it happened … but the fact that he may come back home earlier than next August [the end of his term] makes my heart warm."
Marina Khodorkovsky declined to speak about her health, which Putin had cited as a reason for clemency. She said she hadn't been able to speak with her son about his potential release. "How can I? He doesn't have a phone there, you know," she said.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said he didn't know about his client making a request for clemency. "The president doesn't need a written request from a convict to pardon him," Klyuvgant told Echo of Moscow radio.
The significance of the purported clemency bid became clear when the Interfax news agency quoted Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying, "His clemency plea means he admitted his guilt."
Putin's decision came one day after Russia's parliament approved an amnesty law that is expected to lead to freedom for two groups of detainees who had become international causes: the two imprisoned members of the punk band Pussy Riot, and 30 people facing charges for their roles in a Greenpeace demonstration against Arctic oil drilling.
With Russia about to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there was speculation that Putin has been trying to clear the books of some of the biggest human rights complaints against his government. That left Two major issues remained: a Russian law outlawing gay "propaganda" and the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, whose case has had the unlikely effect of turning a Russian oil billionaire into someone whose case, at its hyperbolic extreme, elicited comparison to Nelson Mandela's.
There were various explanations of Putin's thinking.
"Putin has had a very successful political year," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center, citing foreign policy successes in Syria, Iran and Ukraine. "He feels like the king of the hill, like a god who can be merciful, especially on the eve of the 2014 Sochi Olympics."
Kremlin advisor and political scientist Sergei Markov said the fact that Khodorkovsky appeared to have written to Putin without consulting his lawyers suggests that he must have struck some kind of deal with the Kremlin, perhaps to refrain from opposing the Kremlin politically.
"It is bad news for the opposition, since Khodorkovsky was their flag-bearer while he was in prison, and his money, what's left of it, still worked for their cause," said Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.
The announcement crowned an otherwise largely uneventful news conference, notable mainly for its lack of anti-American rhetoric.
Putin refused to take credit for progress in nuclear talks with Iran, and praised the United States for its role.
"I think the progress … is connected not only with our position but to a significant degree with the pragmatic position of the U.S. administration," Putin said. "But for this, there would have been no progress, this would have been impossible."
Putin also, surprisingly, seemed to defend President Obama from criticism over the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program, saying it was conducted "mainly to combat terrorism."
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