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Mikhail Khodorkovsky leaves Russian prison after Putin signs pardon

By Diana Magnay and Olga Pavlova, CNN
December 21, 2013 -- Updated 0155 GMT (0955 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urges reforms in Russian judicial system
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky thanks his family and supporters in statement
  • President Vladimir Putin signed a decree pardoning Khodorkovsky
  • The former oil magnate and Kremlin opponent had been in prison since 2003

Moscow (CNN) -- Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrived in Germany after Russian President Vladimir Putin released him Friday following more than 10 years in prison, the German Foreign Ministry said.

Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel, told CNN in a text message that he flew to Germany to meet his father.

In a statement following his release, Khodorkovsky said he asked Putin to pardon him on November 12, "and I am glad his decision was positive." He further said "the issue of admission of guilt was not raised" in the discussion.

He went on to personally thank those who followed his case and supported him and said he was "constantly thinking of those who continue to remain imprisoned."

"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," he said. "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!"

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed Khodorkovsky's release.

"The United States strongly encourages Russia to pursue reforms that establish a transparent, independent and reliable judicial system that upholds its commitments to human rights, the rule of law and non-discrimination," Kerry said.

Putin signed an amnesty decree for Khodorkovsky, a former Yukos oil tycoon, earlier in the day.

The signature came a day after Putin announced that he planned to pardon Khodorkovsky.

The oil magnate, who backed an opposition party, had been in prison since 2003 and was convicted in 2005 of tax evasion and fraud. He was due for release in 2014.

Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher apparently was involved in the release, saying he met twice with Putin to discuss the case. Genscher also arranged the flight on a private jet from Russia and picked Khodorkovsky up at the airport in Berlin.

"He is doing well considering the circumstances," Genscher told Caren Miosga of CNN affiliate ARD in Germany. "He looks forward to seeing his family again in a few hours again. I heard his conversation with his family members in the car, although I don´t speak Russian. It was still moving. This is understandable because he had to suffer for 10 years."

Russian tycoon's prison sentence cut by two years

Mikhail Khodorkovsky released from prison
Putin plans Khodorkovsky pardon

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Putin said Khodorkovsky had written a letter appealing for a pardon, citing humanitarian factors.

A statement Thursday on a website set up in support of Khodorkovsky said that it could not confirm plans for a pardon but "all of his family and supporters would of course be elated to see him finally free after ten years of imprisonment."

Putin's announcement came a day after Russian lawmakers backed a sweeping amnesty law.

The amnesty, to mark the anniversary of the adoption in 1993 of Russia's post-Communist constitution, will be applied to thousands of Russian prisoners, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

It comes at a time when Russia's human rights record is in the spotlight, as the country prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

Russia has faced international criticism for its treatment of Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, with countries including the United States accusing it of selective prosecution and abuse of the legal system.

He has said his prosecution was part of a Kremlin campaign to destroy him and take control of the company he built from privatization deals of the 1990s.

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