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Freed Russian oligarch has left for Germany

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NATALIYA VASILYEVA | December 20, 2013 09:17 AM EST | AP

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MOSCOW (AP) — Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been pardoned by President Vladimir Putin, left jail after 10 years Friday and left for Germany, prison officials said on Friday.

The Federal Penitentiary Service said in a statement published on its website on Friday that Khodorkovsky had petitioned to be allowed to travel to Germany to meet his mother who is undergoing medical treatment. The agency said the he left on his own volition.

The German Foreign Ministry said it cannot confirm that Khodorkovsky was going to Germany.

In his time in prison on politically tinged charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, 50-year-old Khodorkovsky turned from a powerful oligarch into a respected dissident, becoming a political thinker who argued for social justice and placed the blame on Putin for Russia's stagnating economy. It wasn't clear whether Khodorkovsky would continue his opposition to the Kremlin.

Putin's announcement less than 24 hours before that Khodorkovsky would be pardoned appeared to catch both the public and Khodorkovsky's lawyers by surprise. His release was equally shrouded in mystery. Several hours before, Khodorkovsky's lawyers and family said they still had no idea when he would be let out.

Khodorkovsky's father, Boris, speaking on the phone from the Moscow region, told The Associated Press he and his wife, are in Moscow and are going to fly to Germany on Saturday.

Khodorkovsky's second wife and three children live in the Moscow region. His eldest son from the first marriage lives with his family in New York City.

Khodorkovsky's spokeswoman, Olga Pispanen, confirmed his release, but told The Associated Press she did not know if he has left for Germany.

Putin told reporters on Thursday that Khodorkovsky applied for the pardon because his mother's health is deteriorating. The Kremlin's website published a decree Friday morning saying that Putin was "guided by the principles of humanity" when he decided to pardon Khodorkovsky.

The pardon appeared to be a sudden turnaround for the Kremlin, which has vigorously prosecuted Khodorkovsky since his arrest in 2003, in what has widely been considered to be Putin's retribution for the tycoon's political ambitions.

The development — along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship — appears aimed at easing international criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin's pet project.

Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man, worth billions of dollars, and the CEO of the country's largest oil company when he was arrested on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and charged with tax evasion.

During Putin's first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties and also was believed to harbor personal political ambitions. His actions defied an unwritten pact between Putin and a narrow circle of billionaire tycoons, dubbed "oligarchs," under which the government refrained from reviewing privatization deals that made the group enormously rich.

Khodorkovsky's oil company Yukos was effectively crushed under the weight of a $28 billion back-tax bill. Yukos was sold off. Most of it went to state oil company Rosneft, allowing the Kremlin to reassert control of the country's oil business as well as stifle an inconvenient voice.

Khodorkovsky's current net worth is unknown, but likely it's at most a mere shadow of his onetime fortune.

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Laura Mills and Leonid Chizhov in Moscow and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.