Russia's supreme court has said it would review a ruling that imposed a £335m fine on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, opening the way for the recently freed former oligarch to return to Russia.
Khodorkovsky, who is in Germany, is believed to be planning a move to Switzerland with his family, having been granted amnesty by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, after 10 years in prison on charges of tax evasion. He has insisted he will not return to Moscow as long as the fine looms over him.
The court's move on Thursday to review the ruling may also reduce the jail term imposed on Khodorkovsky's business partner Platon Lebedev, who was also sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Both men – former heads of Russia's largest oil firm, Yukos – were jailed in 2003 in what many believe was a political move by the Kremlin to punish and subdue criticism that Khodorkovsky had funded.
After Putin unexpectedly pardoned Khodorkovsky last week, the Russian authorities hastily smuggled the former oligarch to Germany in a covert operation that involved two chartered aircraft and the behind-the-scenes assistance of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister.
The secrecy that shrouded the operation encouraged international media to assume that Khodorkovsky had been expelled from Russia into political exile, drawing comparisons with the expulsion of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the USSR to Germany in 1974.
When he emerged in Berlin, Khodorkovsky seemed to confirm these suspicions, saying that the outstanding £335m fine imposed on him and Lebedev would prevent his returning to Russia. He said the authorities could use it to stop him from going abroad again if he did return.
In July, the European court of human rights in Strasbourg requested the fine be lifted on the grounds that it contradicted Russian laws. Russia chose not to appeal the decision, but Vyacheslav Lebedev, chair of its supreme court, has now said the sentences should be reviewed, particularly the controversial fine.
The supreme court also said the sentences meted out to the former Yukos owners might have been inappropriately severe and needed to be reconsidered. Platon Lebedev is currently scheduled to be freed in July 2014.
Khodorkovsky issued a short statement on Thursday that "hailed" the decision but made no reference to any return to Russia. However, the former oligarch's mother, Marina Khodorkovskaya, told Interfax news agency that her son was likely to return should the fine be lifted.
Khodorkovsky included in his statement hopes that "bureaucratic procedures will not be too long and Platon Lebedev will be released soon". His spokesperson told the Guardian that it was still too early for an analysis of what the supreme court's review might lead to.
Vadim Klyuvgant, Khodorkovsky's lawyer, told reporters that he considered the court's decision to be "intermediate", given the vulnerability of Russian courts to political pressure.
Upon his release, Khodorkovsky said he was not going "to be involved in politics as in struggle for power", but intended to help other political prisoners. On Wednesday, he received a three-month visa, allowing him to enter Switzerland, where his wife, Inna, is living with their three children.