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UPDATE 1-Russian court orders release of ex-aide to Khodorkovksy

Maria Tsvetkova
Thursday, 23 Jan 2014 | 4:49 AM ET

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MOSCOW, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The former business partner of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be released from prison on Friday under a ruling by Russia's Supreme Court that reduced his sentence.

Platon Lebedev is the latest high-profile prisoner to be freed in Russia as President Vladimir Putin tries to soften criticism of his record on human rights and democracy before next month's Winter Olympics on Sochi.

Lebedev, who with Khodorkovsky was sentenced for tax evasion in 2005 and later convicted on other charges, had been due for release in May but the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that his sentence should be reduced.

"Release Lebedev," Supreme Court Judge Pyotr Serkov declared in the ruling after reducing his sentence so that it amounted to time served.

Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and the head of the oil company Yukos, last month. But Lebedev, who is being held close to the Arctic Circle, did not seek a pardon and had remained in jail.

The court did not change a court order under which Lebedev and Khodorkovsky must pay 17 billion roubles ($521 million) in tax arrears - an obstacle to Khodorkovsky's return to Russia after leaving for Germany in December.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were regarded by human rights groups as political prisoners. The Kremlin denies using the courts for political purposes.

Other prominent inmates freed in the past few weeks included two women from the Pussy Riot protest group jailed over the performance of a "punk prayer" critical of Putin in a Russian Orthodox church.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Douglas Busvine)