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Published: Saturday January 25, 2014 MYT 4:40:02 AM
Updated: Saturday January 25, 2014 MYT 4:41:48 AM

Khodorkovsky associate Lebedev freed after Russian court ruling

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's business partner Platon Lebedev walked free on Friday after more than 10 years in prison, following in his better-known associate's footsteps after the Russian Supreme Court shortened his sentence.

Lebedev, whose arrest in 2003 foreshadowed Khodorkovsky's months later, had been the former Yukos oil company chief's co-defendant in two trials that President Vladimir Putin's critics called part of a politically charged campaign of revenge.

"Free!" Khodorkovsky's website said in a brief statement. "On Friday, January 24 at 22:20 Moscow time, Platon Lebedev left the prison colony where he spent the last 2-1/2 of his 10-1/2 years in custody. He was met by relatives."

His release three months early from a remote jail in northern Russia came a month after Khodorkovsky was freed and flown to Germany following a surprise pardon from Putin, who is seeking to improve his image before the Sochi Olympics next month.

The Supreme Court on Thursday shortened Lebedev's sentence to time served.

But it has not expunged the men's convictions for financial crimes, or a requirement that they pay 17 billion roubles ($521 million) in tax arrears, reducing the likelihood of Khodorkovsky returning to Russia and challenging Putin. It was not clear if Lebedev would be allowed to leave Russia if he wanted to.

Putin, who has been in power since 2000 and started a third presidential term in 2012, has sought to address international concerns over what critics see as a crackdown on opponents as he prepares to host the Olympics.

He authored an amnesty last month that freed two female members of the punk band Pussy Riot and dropped charges against 30 Greenpeace activists, most of them foreigners from the West, who had faced up to seven years in prison for a protest at a Russian oil rig.

Critics say that, far from showing that the rule of law is strong in Russia, which would help to attract investment and improve the chances of long-term prosperity, the releases only underscore how much hinges on Putin's will and whims.

Lebedev, 57, has dismissed the convictions as a farce and refused to seek a pardon from Putin.

On the website, his lawyer Vladimir Krasnov said Lebedev was with his elder daughter Lyudmila and son Mikhail, and that they were headed for Moscow by car from prison in the Arkhangelsk region, where it was about minus 19 degrees Celsius (-2 F) when he was freed.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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