Khodorkovsky was freed in a grand and widely publicized amnesty issued by President Vladimir Putin, a gesture apparently intended to burnish Russia’s human rights credentials before the Winter Olympics open in Sochi on Feb. 7. Letting an archenemy go also demonstrated to the world that Putin feels very much in charge, unthreatened by any opposition, and reminded Russians and foreigners that he alone makes the decisions here.
Lebedev’s release provided a different reminder — that even though officials insist that the judiciary is independent, the courts can be depended on to follow the political winds.
The decision set off little comment in the traditional media, where the weakening of the ruble dominated the news Thursday. But a sustained virtual cheer went up on Twitter, where Lebedev’s imminent release was tweeted and retweeted again and again.By late afternoon in Russia, his name was trending at the top of Twitter.
Lebedev, 57, was convicted, twice, along with Khodorkovsky of tax evasion and embezzlement, charges widely considered to be politically motivated. Khodorkovsky had angered Putin by financing the political opposition, and he said later that his biggest regret was the price Lebedev was forced to pay.
Lebedev’s twin, Viktor, reportedly met with his brother Thursday afternoon in the town of Velsk, where Lebedev was serving his time. Late Thursday, local reporters said Lebedev’s wife had checked into a nearby hotel.
The Supreme Court had also reviewed an order requiring Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to pay $521 million in unpaid taxes related to the case. The judges left that ruling in force.
Khodorkovsky left his prison camp and went to Germany after his release in December. He has not returned to Russia, and he has given the multimillion-dollar tax bill as a major reason.
Khodorkovsky had been released under the same amnesty that freed two young women who were part of the Pussy Riot performance art group, convicted of hooliganism for singing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s main cathedral. The two, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who had been jailed early in 2012, are now immersed in prison reform activities.
Along with the “hurrahs” on Twitter on Thursday, one tweet made a simple but stark observation: “10 years, 6 months, 22 days,” and Lebedev was finally freed.