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Putin Challenger Vows To Pardon Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Prokhorov addresses supporters at a meeting in Moscow on December 15.
The Russian billionaire who this week announced his challenge to Vladimir Putin for Russia's upcoming presidential election says his first move, if elected, would be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals magnate estimated to be worth some $18 billion, announced this week that he would seek the presidency in March.

Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has been in jail since 2003 on tax-evasion and fraud charges that critics say are punishment for defying then-President Putin's power.

Some analysts view Prokhorov's presidential bid as a genuine attempt to harness public discontent following the December parliamentary elections, while others speculate that it might be an attempt to dilute any possible challenges to Putin.

Many foreign observers and rights activists at home and abroad regard Khodorkovsky as a victim of politically motivated prosecution. But it's not clear that a call for his release will play well among Russians who regard the rise of Russia's post-Soviet oligarchs with suspicion.

The December 4 elections, won by Putin's United Russia party, sparked unprecedented mass protests over alleged fraud.

Putin, long Russia's most popular politician with significant influence over state-controlled media, is seen as almost certain to win a third mandate in the March presidential vote.

compiled from agency reports