MOSCOW - A Russian court on Wednesday reduced the sentence of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's co-defendant in a ruling that could pave the way for the Kremlin foe's own early release.
The surprise decision to cut more than three years from former Menatep bank boss Platon Lebedev's jail term may still be appealed by the prosecution, but it represents a rare victory for Khodorkovsky, one of President Vladimir Putin's most vocal and long-standing opponents.
Khodorkovsky's ruined Yukos oil empire once made him Russia's richest man and generated buzz that he could become president.
The northern Arkhangelsk district court near the prison colony where Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are serving time ruled that Lebedev should be freed in March instead of October 2016 after a recent easing of penalties for business crimes.
The two close colleagues were initially jailed on tax evasion charges in 2004 after waging a fierce political and business campaign against Kremlin interests that included plans to develop a separate Yukos oil pipeline to China.
They were convicted and sentenced for a second time in 2010 just months ahead of their scheduled release in a hearing that drew strong condemnation from the West and put Russia's damaged investment image in further disrepute.
Lebedev's attorney appealed the second conviction, and the court ruled on Wednesday that recent legal changes easing the punishment for white-collar crimes should apply to the Yukos case.
"I am partially granting the defence lawyers' appeal," the Interfax news agency quoted presiding judge Viktor Ivanov as saying.
Khodorkovsky's attorney said the defence team had decided to make Lebedev into a test case to see how the judge would rule on the recent change in legislation.
"We will now be deciding whether to make the same appeal on behalf of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We wanted to test this first - this was a tactical move. Now we will look at the results and decide," said defence attorney Yury Schmidt. "The judge cannot avoid complying with this law - especially now that he has put it into practice in respect to Lebedev," Schmidt told AFP.
A successful appeal by Khodorkovsky has the potential of invigorating a Russian protest movement that has lost much of its drive since Putin's thumping return to a third term as president in May.
Before his arrest, Khodorkovsky had spent freely on efforts to prop up both the liberal and communist opposition to Putin in parliament.
He has continued to hotly criticise the Kremlin from jail by writing opinion pieces for top Western dailies and promoting a more cohesive political force against Putin's rule.
But the financially-ruined tycoon's impact on contemporary Russian politics remains unclear because the opposition has since rallied around a new generation of leaders who view Khodorkovsky's era of big business with disdain. Schmidt said Khodorkovsky's early release could actually help Putin by easing some of the Western criticism of his first three months back in the Kremlin.
"I have always thought that releasing Khodorkovsky would be the perfect diversion manoeuvre for the Kremlin as it imposes other restrictions and goes after the protesters," the attorney said.