* Medvedev says ex-tycoon should file petition for pardon
* Lawyer calls remarks a “game” intended to humiliate client
* Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky in jail since 2003
By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW, April 26 (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday he would only consider freeing former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he requested a pardon, a statement the oligarch’s lawyers dismissed as a meaningless and spiteful ploy.
Khodorkovsky’s supporters saw the comments as a sign the fallen businessman - Russia’s richest man before he was jailed on tax evasion and fraud charges in 2003 - would not be released on Medvedev’s watch.
Medvedev, whose term ends on May 7 when Vladimir Putin is inaugurated as president, s aid he could allow Khodorkovsky to bypass a requirement to admit his guilt but that any convict was obliged to file a formal pardon request.
“The question of whether or not one must admit guilt (to be pardoned) lies in the hands of the president,” Medvedev said in an interview with Russian television channels.
“But here is my answer regarding Khodorkovsky and others: There can be no consideration (of a pardon) without a petition.”
His comments come less than two weeks before Putin is due to be sworn in. Putin, president from 2000-2008, has taken a tough line against Khodorkovsky, who was arrested after showing political ambitions and falling out with the Kremlin.
The former magnate’s best hopes of an early release appeared to lie with Medvedev.
Khodorkovsky, who was the head of the Yukos oil company that was broken up and sold off into state hands after his arrest, denies the charges against him and refuses to ask for a pardon.
Karina Moskalenko, one of Khodorkovsky’s lawyers, said the Kremlin was trying to humiliate him by encouraging him to file a petition for a pardon and then denying it.
“What do they want? To humiliate him and then not grant a pardon?” she said by telephone, describing such behaviour as disgraceful.
“If such a petition were the only obstacle, we would have discussed that with Mikhail Borisovich (Khodorkovsky) long ago.”
Another lawyer, Yuri Shmidt, likened Russia’s leaders to “card sharps” playing games with Khodorkovsky.
Medvedev requested a review of Khodorkovsky’s case and 31 others two months ago after talks with opposition leaders who handed him a list of people they consider political prisoners, but has pardoned only one of them so far.
Some lawyers say the president has the right to free a convict even if he or she has not requested a pardon or submitted an admission of guilt. But Medvedev said that pardoning someone without their consent would violate their right to later be rehabilitated.
Khodorkovsky, 48, is serving a 13-year sentence on two separate convictions which he says is punishment for his interest in politics. He is not due to be freed until 2016.
The second conviction in 2010 was one of the biggest disappointments for liberals who had hoped Medvedev’s four-year term as president would bring reform of the judicial system.
Kremlin insiders say Medvedev has no personal grudge against Khodorkovsky, one of the businessmen who made fortunes following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but that he did not want to defy Putin by setting him free during his presidency.
“Everyone knows that he cannot do anything without Putin,” Shmidt said of Medvedev.
“Pardoning Khodorkovsky would mean admitting his conviction was unjust, in the second trial at least, and the authorities do not want to admit that,” prominent defence lawyer Genri Reznik told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Medvedev was steered into the Kremlin by Putin in 2008 and is now set to become prime minister under his mentor.
Last year Medvedev said he saw no threat for Russia if Khodorkovsky were freed. But Putin, who won a six-year term in a presidential election in March, has called Khodorkovsky a “thief” who should be in jail. (Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Osborn)