WASHINGTON, December 20 (RIA Novosti) – The United States said Friday that it “welcomes” the Kremlin’s decision to pardon former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Russian prisoners but expressed concern about the mingling of politics and justice in Russia.
“Today’s humanitarian gesture is a positive development for Russian society, but we continue to be deeply troubled by selective justice in Russia,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement to RIA Novosti. “If Russia is to achieve its potential to play its full role on the world stage, it must elevate the rule of law over political considerations.”
Khodorkovsky, former head of the dismantled oil giant Yukos, was freed by a presidential pardon Friday after serving more than a decade in prison following his arrest on a Siberian runway in 2003 and two subsequent convictions for fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement.
His imprisonment has drawn international condemnation over what was widely seen as politically motivated charges leveled against him, though the Russian government has consistently maintained they were strictly a matter for the criminal justice system.
“For many years, we have voiced our concerns about politically motivated investigations and selective prosecutions in Russia, including in Khodorkovksy’s case,” Hayden said in the statement.
Khodorkovsky, who flew to Germany after his release from a prison in northern Russia on Friday, said in a statement that he requested a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 12 due to “family circumstances” but that he did not address the issue of guilt in the petition.
Putin told reporters on Thursday that he decided to sign the pardon after receiving a request for clemency from Khodorkovsky, citing the deteriorating health of the former oil baron’s mother.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Washington had made its views known “many times in the past” about Khodorkovsky’s conviction and imprisonment and that equality under the law is critical to Russia’s economic development.
“The Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary that serves as an instrument for furthering economic growth, ensuring equal treatment under law and advancing justice in a predictable and fair way,” Psaki said.
On Wednesday, Russian lawmakers rushed through an amnesty bill granting freedom to thousands of prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes, primarily among pensioners, pregnant women and mothers with young children.
The bill was passed in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Russian Constitution and is set to pave the way for the release of numerous high-profile detainees and people facing prosecution.
A lawyer for imprisoned Pussy Riot art collective member Maria Alyokhina told RIA Novosti on Thursday that he expected her imminent release, as she fell under the amnesty provision for mothers with children.
Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova also appears to be eligible for release under the amnesty law. Their prison terms were to end in March.
Updated with comments from the US State Department