MOSCOW -- In a surprise decision, President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday that jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be pardoned, a move that will see his top political foe and Russia's onetime richest man freed after more than a decade in prison.
The development, along with an amnesty for two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship, appeared aimed at easing international criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Mr. Putin's pet project.
Mr. 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 in a four-hour marathon.
Mr. Putin said the 50-year-old 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," Mr. 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."
Mr. Putin's announcement "came as a big surprise for me, totally out of the blue," Khodorkovsky's mother, Maria, told RT television. "We are old people, and we are waiting, hoping to live to the moment when we can embrace him," his father, Boris, said in remarks posted on the Slon.ru online newspaper.
Analysts viewed the decision as a clever step ahead of the Sochi Olympics. "At first blush, the pardon for Khodorkovsky appears to be a rather canny move that will throw Putin's critics off-balance in the run-up to Sochi, while sending a clear message of self-confidence to his domestic political opponents," Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a written commentary.
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 Mr. Putin's power.
During Mr. Putin's first term as president, the oil tycoon angered the Kremlin by funding opposition parties. Khodorkovsky also was believed to harbor personal political ambitions. His actions defied an unwritten pact between Mr. 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.
Mr. Putin didn't say a word Thursday about the fate of Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, who was convicted and sentenced in the same trials. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Lebedev hadn't asked for a pardon.
At his news conference, Mr. 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.
Mr. Putin still stood by his strong criticism of Pussy Riot's irreverent 2010 protest at Moscow's main cathedral, describing it as a publicity stunt that "crossed all barriers."
Despite strains in Russia-U.S. ties, the Russian president offered support to President Barack Obama, saying U.S. National Security Agency surveillance is necessary to fight terrorism. But he said the U.S. government should "limit the appetite" of the agency, with a clear set of ground rules.
Mr. Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran and former chief of Russia's main espionage agency, said that 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.
Asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whom Russia has granted asylum, Mr. Putin insisted that Moscow isn't controlling him and hasn't tried to learn his secrets. He reaffirmed that Moscow made providing refuge to Mr. Snowden conditional on halting what Mr. Putin called his anti-American activities.
Mr. Putin said he hasn't met with Mr. Snowden and insisted that Russian security agencies haven't worked with him or questioned him about NSA activities against Russia.