Four days ago, the human rights council appointed by Russia's soon-to-be-ex President Dmitry Medvedev recommended that the President pardon Khodorkovsky before turning the office over to Vladimir Putin; I made the same case recently in an op-ed over at PolicyMic that freeing Khodorkovsky would not only be the right thing to do, but would also assure more of a legacy for Medvedev than simply being remembered as Putin's temporary seat-filler.
Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man and the head of one of Russia's most-powerful corporations, the oil conglomerate Yukos. But Khodorkovsky broke an unspoken agreement between Putin and the oligarch class with his donations to a political party in Siberia. The full legal force of the State was soon brought down on Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was charged and eventually jailed for tax evasion. In late 2010, Khodorkovsky was charged again on largely the same evidence and years were tacked on to his sentence, time enough to keep him in jail through the presidential elections held earlier this March.
Khodorkovsky's supporters have long contended that the tax evasion charges were a personal vendetta on the part of Vladimir Putin, arguing that if this was the legal standard, then all of Russia's oligarchs should be jailed. Even though Medvedev has the power to pardon Khodorkovsky, his supporters are not optimistic. For one, it seems that in order to get the pardon, Khodorkovsky would have to admit his guilt, something Khodorkovsky refuses to do since he contends he's not guilty of anything. An admission of guilt is not necessary for a pardon under Russian law, a point ruled on several times by Russia's Supreme Court, though there is a belief that Medvedev would insist on one in order to give Khodorkovsky his pardon.
This could also simply be an excuse for Medvedev not to exercise his pardon power. Khodorkovsky's backers further believe that ultimately the decision on whether or not to pardon Khodorkovsky will come from Putin, not Medvedev. Putin and Khodorkovsky have an active dislike of each other. In the past Putin has dismissed claims that Khodorkovsky's prosecution was politically-motivated and has insisted that “thieves should sit in jail,” for his part, Khodorkovsky has issued a series of letters from his prison cell in Russia's remote Far East condemning the Putin presidency for failing to fight corruption and for concentrating political power within the Kremlin.