Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be pardoned, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday in a surprise decision that will let his top foe and Russia's formerly richest man out of prison after more than a decade.
The move, along with an amnesty for the two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship, appears designed to assuage international criticism of Russia's rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin's pet project.
Putin waited until just after his tightly choreographed annual news conference to make the announcement, dropping the biggest news of the day after journalists had already peppered him with questions, including one about Khodorkovsky, in a four-hour marathon.
Putin said Khodorkovsky, who was set to be released next August, had submitted an appeal for pardon, something he had refused to do before.
"He has spent more than 10 years behind bars. It's a tough punishment," Putin said. "He's citing humanitarian aspects — his mother is ill. A decree to pardon him will be signed shortly."
The head of the Kremlin's United Russia faction said he expects Khodorkovsky to celebrate the New Year at home with his family.
Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel, tweeted: "Very happy news. Waiting to speak with my father to learn more."
Putin's announcement "came as a big surprise for me, totally out of the blue," Khodorkovsky's mother told RT television.
In October 2003, masked commandos stormed into Khodorkovsky's jet on the tarmac of a Siberian airport and arrested him at gunpoint. He was found guilty of tax evasion in 2005 and convicted of embezzlement in a second case in 2010.
Critics have dismissed the charges against Khodorkovsky as a Kremlin vendetta for challenging Putin's power. During Putin's first term as president, the 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 them enormously rich in the years after the Soviet collapse on condition that they didn't meddle in politics.
In the past, when asked if he could pardon Khodorkovsky, Putin kept repeating that the inmate needs to plea for the pardon. Khodorkovsky's lawyers, however, have insisted that Russian law doesn't require a convict to do so.
Putin on Thursday didn't say a word about the fate of Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, who was convicted and sentenced in the same trials. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hadn't asked for pardon.
During the press conference, Putin was asked about if Khodorkovsky could face yet another criminal case that would keep him longer behind bars. He gave a vague answer, saying he doesn't see grounds for that but that prosecutors must investigate alleged offenses.
There was no immediate explanation of why he didn't announce Khodorkovsky's release during the news conference.
At the time of his arrest, Khodorkovsky was estimated to have a fortune of around $15 billion but it's not clear what is left of it. Khodorkovsky's oil company, Yukos, once Russia's largest, was dismantled after his arrest, with its most lucrative assets ending up in the hands of the state-owned company Rosneft.
Russia's deputy minister of economic development, Andrei Klepach, voiced hope that Khodorkovsky's release would help improve Russia's image among investors.
At his press conference, Putin also confirmed that an amnesty approved Wednesday by the Kremlin-controlled parliament will apply to the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail and to the Greenpeace crew facing hooliganism charges for their protest at a Russian oil rig in the Arctic.
Putin still stood by his strong criticism of Pussy Riot's 2010 irreverent protest at Moscow's main cathedral, describing it as a publicity stunt that "crossed all barriers."
He also alleged that the Greenpeace activists, who spent two months in jail after their Arctic protest before being granted bail, were trying to hurt Russia's economic interests.
Putin weathered months of massive protests against his rule in 2011-2012, when more than 100,000 gathered to oppose his return to the Russian presidency. A demonstration in May 2012 a day before his inauguration for a third term ended in scuffles with police.
The amnesty bill included only 8 out of 26 people tried or awaiting trial in connection with that anti-government protest. Putin defended the decision not to offer amnesty to others, saying their release would give a bad example.
"No one should be allowed to violently trample on the law," Putin said.
Despite strains in Russia-U.S. ties, the Russian president offered surprising support to President Barack Obama, saying that surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency is necessary to fight terrorism. The U.S. government should "limit the appetite" of the agency, however, with a clear set of ground rules, he said.
Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran and the former chief of Russia's main espionage agency, said while the NSA program "isn't a cause for joy, it's not a cause for sorrow either" because it's necessary to monitor large numbers of people to expose terrorist contacts.
"I'm not trying to justify anyone, God forbid," he said. "But for the sake of justice, we need to say that this is primarily intended to fight terror."
Asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whom Russia has granted asylum, Putin insisted that Moscow isn't controlling him and hasn't tried to learn his secrets.
He argued that any revelations published by Snowden must have come from materials he provided before landing in Russia, and reaffirmed that Moscow made providing refuge to Snowden conditional on his halting what Putin called his anti-American activities.
Putin said he hasn't met with Snowden. He insisted that Russian security agencies haven't worked with him and have not asked him any questions related to NSA activities against Russia.
Putin also dismissed a report claiming that Moscow stationed its state-of-the art Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad exclave that borders NATO and EU members Poland and Lithuania. Still he said he considers such a move a possible way of countering the U.S.-led missile defense system in Europe.
The Kremlin sees Putin's annual press conference as key way to burnish Putin's father-of-the nation image.
Journalists waved handwritten posters with names of their cities to attract Putin's eye. One succeeded by holding up a Yeti doll in a T-shirt with the name of her region, while another invited Putin to attend a party at her newspaper.
Many acted as envoys for their towns or provinces, asking for subsidies or state support for specific projects. Others complained about official abuses or asked for his personal patronage.
One journalist from Russia's far east complained about a clash between local police and the drug enforcement agency. Putin ordered an immediate check on the situation.