Khodorkovsky released as Putin's regime loosens grip ahead of Winter Games

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has been released after serving a prison sentence which lasted more than a decade. Official reports say he has already left the remote prison colony near the Arctic Circle, where he was incarcerated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to free Khodorkovsky, a former political rival, but many of Putin's critics see the act as nothing more than festive bravado.

Khodorkovsky is the former head of the Yukos oil company and, before his arrest, had funded opposition parties and clashed publicly with Putin. He was jailed for tax evasion and theft.

Putin said of his decision to release Khodorkovsky:

“He’s already spent more than 10 years in prison, this is a serious punishment,” Mr Putin said. “He’s appealed on humanitarian grounds. His mother is ill and I think that considering these circumstances, a corresponding decision can be made.”

Despite Putin's seeming clemency, many remain sceptical that it signifies any lasting change of tack or opinion. The gesture comes as Russia tries to sidestep reproval of its human rights track before the Winter Olympics, which are being held in Sochi in February.

Earlier in the week, the Russian parliament approved an amnesty bill which is expected to help towards freeing 2,000 people from jail.