MOSCOW: Russia's top court on Thursday ordered the immediate release of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's jailed business partner, Platon Lebedev, whose term was due to end in May.
But the Supreme Court also effectively sealed the exile of Kremlin critic Khodorkovsky, who was released last month after receiving a pardon from President Vladimir Putin, by upholding the state's $550-million (400-million-euro) tax claim against him.
Khodorkovsky, the former chief of the Yukos oil firm who left Russia immediately after his sudden release, has said he will not be able to return as long as the tax claim remains in place.
The Supreme Court did not give an official reason for cutting short Lebedev's prison term but the ruling came as the Kremlin tries to clean up its human rights image ahead of next month's Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Lebedev is also understood to owe tax arrears.
Khodorkovsky's defence team hailed Lebedev's release while calling the tax ruling a blow that will probably keep Khodorkovsky out of Russia over the long term.
"The main thing today is the release of Platon Lebedev," Khodorkovsky's defence team said in a statement.
"However there is bad news as well. The Presidium of the Supreme Court has not overruled the absurd claims over 17.5 billion rubles ($550 million)," the statement added.
"As long as the claim stands, the 'iron curtain' can drop in front of him any time. And (Khodorkovsky) cannot afford the luxury of losing his freedom of movement because of his health, family situation and strategic life plans."
Khodorkovsky, who is currently in Switzerland with his wife and children, will "certainly not" return to Russia after the decision, his spokeswoman Olga Pispanen told AFP.
"He cannot be locked inside one country now due to family circumstances and the health of Maria Filippovna," she said, referring to the tycoon's mother, who has undergone treatment for cancer in Berlin.
In a move that stunned Russia, Putin last month pardoned Khodorkovsky on humanitarian grounds and the tycoon was immediately flown out of the country.
The cloak-and-dagger operation was quietly agreed between the Kremlin and German diplomats including former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
Lebedev was arrested in July 2003. He was Khodorkovsky's co-defendant in two highly controversial trials, which saw both convicted on charges of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
But supporters of the accused said they were being punished for daring to fund the opposition.
Khodorkovsky has said that the decision to imprison and then release him was taken personally by Putin, although he said in December that he did not hold a grudge against the president because his family was spared.
The European Court of Human Rights had said that the trials were unfair, but did not call them politically motivated.
Lebedev has been serving his sentence in the far-northern Arkhangelsk region. His defence has repeatedly complained that he has been denied adequate medical care for his health problems.
The 57-year-old will leave his penal colony as soon as its administration receives the court decision, which is not likely to happen before Friday, the prison service told Russian news agencies.
Interfax news agency said Lebedev's twin brother Viktor already arrived to meet him and the two saw each other in the penal colony.
Observers have attributed the surprise release of Putin's top critic Khodorkovsky to Kremlin attempts to improve Russia's international image ahead of the Olympic Games that begin in Sochi on February 7.
Political analyst Mikhail Remizov said the decision to free Lebedev was the logical next step.
But although Khodorkovsky has denied plans to enter politics, Putin is still wary of letting him back into the country, he said.
"The Kremlin does not know what to expect of him as a public figure," Remizov said. "The Kremlin prefers some geographical distance from Khodorkovsky."