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Russia's Khodorkovsky Seeks Early Release From Jail

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a court hearing in Moscow in 2005
MOSCOW -- Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has appealed to a Russian court for early release from his eight-year prison sentence for tax evasion and fraud, his lawyers said.

Khodorkovsky's 2005 conviction became a symbol of then-President Vladimir Putin's crusade against oligarchs he accused of seeking to grab political power.

The fate of his appeal for release, which follows new charges of embezzlement and money laundering, is broadly seen as a test of new President Dmitry Medvedev's stated commitment to establishing a "rule of law" in Russia.

"This is not an admission of guilt, not a confession," Khodorkovsky's chief defense lawyer Yury Schmidt told a Moscow news conference of the appeal. Khodorkovsky has consistently rejected all accusations against him.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, said in his appeal "my quarter-century work record, successful job experience in various capacities, and large family all guarantee my proper settlement after release."

He said he met the conditions for early release, including having served more than half his sentence, as well as "diligently having worked in prison," but emphasized throughout that he was neither admitting guilt nor asking for a pardon.

In June, Medvedev told reporters in Germany that "the procedures for a pardon are open to any and all citizens convicted of one or another crime, including Khodorkovsky."

The 45-year-old jailed tycoon's lawyers said Medvedev's public pronouncement was not an issue in the latest legal move.

"This is not a request for absolution or amnesty. It is something all prisoners who have served their sentences apply for, and the majority...receive a conditional release," Schmidt said.

Judicial Revolution

Schmidt said he expected opponents of Khodorkovsky to obstruct his request for early release, despite Medvedev's call for judicial independence.

"If he [Medvedev] is able to achieve independent courts for real, then this won't be just reform. It will be a revolution," Schmidt said.

Khodorkovsky's legal team has said the new charges filed in June were a recycled version of earlier indictments, with few minor changes, and that prosecutors now were uncertain about how to proceed given Medvedev's call for judicial reform.

"The investigation has proceeded impulsively, and it is clear they have always relied on some sort of a signal from above that they will get the same support they have had over the past few years," Schmidt said on July 16.

Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer, has ordered steps to root out widespread corruption in the judicial system.

Legal experts and lawyers say Russian judges routinely come under outside pressure -- from businessmen offering bribes, or from officials -- to hand down judgements at odds with the law.

"The president said take it to the courts, and we have gone to court," Schmidt said.