Defiant call from freed oligarch

By Roland Oliphant, Peter Foster

Released to his stunned family, businessman says jailed 'hostages' including ex-colleague must be next.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced tax evasion charges in 2003. Photo / AP
Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced tax evasion charges in 2003. Photo / AP

The pardoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khod-orkovsky issued a ringing declaration of defiance to President Vladimir Putin yesterday, telling an opposition magazine in Moscow: "The most important thing today is freedom, freedom, freedom."

As he was reunited with some family members and looked forward to the arrival of others, he telephoned the New Times, for which he wrote a column from prison, from Berlin to thank its staff for their support and to say what he believed should come next.

In a reference to his former business partner, who was also jailed for defying the Kremlin, he said: "A lot lies ahead, the release of those hostages who still remain in prison, first and foremost Platon Lebedev."

Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel, 28, flew from the US to Berlin and told of the tearful moment when he saw his father face-to-face again, after a decade.

"Actually, you know, I didn't get the first word. My daughter just ran out to him. She got the first hug and the first kiss - but that was cool with me."

It was the first time that Khodorkovsky senior had met his 4-year-old granddaughter, Diana, and the start of a deeply emotional weekend as friends and family flew into Berlin to join the man who grew from being a reviled oligarch into a focal point of Russian opposition while in jail. His mother, who has cancer, later joined them in Berlin from Moscow.

"There was a lot of hugging, a lot of thanks," said Pavel. "He said to me, 'thank you for not giving up on me' which was so important to me."

The reunion was made possible by the sudden release of Khodorkovsky on Friday night, following two years of back-channel German diplomacy to broker a deal that - according to rumours circulating in the German media - may have been clinched with the offer of an exchange involving two Russian sleeper agents jailed in Germany earlier this year.

Der Spiegel magazine reported that the deal to free him was brokered by the former German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who spoke personally with Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, during up to two years of negotiations.

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Pavel confirmed that his father's release had come as a complete surprise to the family and its legal team. Putin announced the decision at a press conference. "It was a big surprise - to my father as well - because no one thought it was going to happen," Pavel said. "Certainly, no one knew it would happen so quickly. He got put on a plane. He got out of there in the middle of the night and he wound up in Germany. He was woken up in the middle of the night. The prison authorities said, 'wake up, let's go' and he was driven to a plane, and that's it."

Pavel was settling into business school in Boston in the summer of 2003 when he last saw his father, who knew that when he returned to Russia he faced almost certain arrest.

In the 10 years since, Pavel met and married his Russian wife Olesya, and the couple had their first child with one more on the way. Being unable to travel to Russia himself for fear of arrest, the only contact he had with his father was letters and photos and, more recently, a weekly phone call. But he said: "He looks very much the same as 10 years ago when I last saw him in person. He's fit, very energetic."

After a decade in Russia's unforgiving penal system, the former billionaire head of Yukos, the now-defunct oil company, did not crave a particular luxury or a favourite food when he emerged, Pavel said. "One of the first things he did was get hold of an iPhone and an iPad and start learning. He had read about them in prison but never seen one. He doesn't care about food and luxuries, but with the iPad he was, like, 'this is amazing'.

"He was ecstatic and has asked me to buy him a Kindle ... "

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in October, Pavel admitted that his father's decision to put principle before family had left him with a complicated set of emotions, which he looked forward to talking through when the time came. "We're definitely going to have those conversations, but later. I don't want to go there now because so much has happened, there is so much emotion."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

1963 Born in Moscow, son of chemical engineers
1980s Set up computer software business with fellow students from Mendeleyev Chemistry Institute, Moscow
1987 Four years before the fall of the USSR he founded what would become Menatep, one of post-Soviet Russia's first private banks
1994 Bought Apatit fertiliser company at auction
1995 Bought Yukos at a state auction at the knockdown price of US$350 million ($426 million)
2003 Arrested for tax evasion, embezzlement and fraud
2005 Found guilty on six of seven charges and jailed for eight years, he was tried again two years before his release date on further charges of embezzlement and money laundering. He is due for release in August 2014
2007 Yukos declared bankrupt while Khodorkovsky was serving his first sentence at a Soviet-era labour camp in the Chita region of eastern Siberia, 4700km east of Moscow
December 2010 Convicted of embezzlement and money laundering after second court case
August 2013 Second sentence reduced
December 2013 President Vladimir Putin announced Khodorkovsky would be pardoned after a request for clemency. One reason cited was the reported ill-health of his mother, Marina.

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