Khodorkovsky Told To Seek Early Release

As jailed former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky turned 45 on Thursday, his lawyers and human rights activists urged him to appeal for early release.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Schmidt said he had drafted an appeal for early release, a right afforded inmates after they serve more than half of their sentences, and would file it in court if Khodorkovsky agreed. "I hope he will agree, but all he has promised so far is to consider the possibility," Schmidt said by telephone. "This man never talks much in advance, you know."

He said he had proposed the appeal because Vladimir Putin was no longer in the Kremlin and he felt encouraged by President Dmitry Medvedev's talk of independent courts and judicial reform.

Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence on tax-evasion and fraud charges that he says were punishment from Putin for his political ambitions. He was arrested in 2003, and the halfway mark of his sentence passed last October. Courts grant prisoners early release for good behavior. Prison officials have accused Khodorkovsky of breaking the rules several times in the Chita prison where he is incarcerated, but courts have overturned their complaints.

Investigators are now considering bringing new charges against Khodorkovsky, and Yelena Levina, a Khodorkovsky lawyer in Chita, said it was unclear whether this might affect a court decision on his early release.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group, said she strongly believed that asking for early release would be the right thing to do. She also said a court ruling in Khodorkovsky's favor would indicate that Medvedev was his own man.

Alexeyeva and a group of other human rights activists, including Yelena Bonner and Lev Ponomaryov, sent Khodorkovsky a congratulatory telegram for his birthday.

About 100 Khodorkovsky's supporters rallied on Pushkin Square at 7 p.m. to celebrate the birthday by passing out red plastic cups of red wine to passersby, who readily raised toasts to the jailed businessman. About 30 police officers kept a wary eye on the gathering.

"Khodorkovsky should be freed," satirist Viktor Shenderovich said in an interview. "It is not only he who needs it, but Russia needs it as well."

One woman pulled out a poster reading, "Authorities, we will remember everything," but a policeman ordered her to put it away as soon as she tried to wave it. She quickly complied, and other demonstrators assured the policeman that they were only celebrating a birthday, not holding a rally. City authorities had not granted permission for a rally.

Rallies also took place in Tomsk, Barnaul and Chita, where the organizers set up a table with birthday cards on a square and encouraged people to write to Khodorkovsky, RIA-Novosti reported. Well-wishers were offered pies and other refreshments. The organizer of the Chita rally, Marina Savateyeva, expressed hope that Medvedev would free Khodorkovsky. "The president is young, he is a lawyer himself, and he has never worked for the KGB," she said by telephone from Chita. Savateyeva was fined for public disorder at Khodorkovsky's last birthday, after she organized a firework display near his prison.