BERLIN - Russia's most famous prisoner, Kremlin critic and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, began life as a free man in Germany on Saturday after his surprise pardon by President Vladimir Putin.
After spending more than 10 years behind bars, Russia's former richest man was quitely escorted from his prison in northwestern Russia on Friday and boarded a plane to Berlin in an operation worked out behind the scenes with the German government.
The lightning speed of his release led some observers to suggest that Khodorkovsky might have flown into forced exile but Putin's spokesman dismissed such suggestions.
"He is free to return to Russia. Absolutely," Peskov told AFP on Saturday. He declined however to say whether any conditions were attached to his release or whether he would be free to participate in politics.
Khodorkovsky, 50, wrote two letters to Putin: one a short legal letter, and the other a longer, personal missive, Peskov added. He declined further details.
Putin had stunned Russia on Thursday by saying his fierce critic had asked for clemency on humanitarian grounds as his mother was ill. "Guided by humanitarian principles," the Russian strongman signed a pardon decree on Friday.
In his first remarks since his release, Khodorkovsky said in a statement on Friday he did ask Putin for a pardon but his request did not amount to an admission of guilt and thanked Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany's foreign minister from 1974-1992, for helping negotiate his release.
"I am very much looking forward to the minute when I will be able to embrace my loved ones," the father of four said, without specifying his future plans.
Khodorkovsky's 79-year-old mother Marina, who has cancer, was expected to fly out to Berlin, where she had undergone treatment before, to see her son.
The Russian opposition magazine The New Times, for which Khodorkovsky wrote a column about his prison life, said the former tycoon called the editorial office to express gratitude for support.
"The most important today is Freedom, Freedom, Freedom," the magazine quoted him as saying. "A lot lies ahead, the release of those hostages who still remained in prison, first and foremost Platon Lebedev," he said, referring to his jailed business partner.