MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court on Tuesday paroled a physicist convicted in 2004 of spying for China, a case rights activists said was an example of Vladimir Putin's use of the courts against opponents.
Rights campaigners welcomed the three-year reduction of Valentin Danilov's 14-year sentence but said it did not signal the president would halt what they say is the Kremlin's practice of using the judiciary to stifle dissent.
In his 60s, Danilov is expected to be freed in 10 days. He watched the hearing from his prison in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region by videolink.
"I think he was quite shocked when he heard the opinion of the prosecutor who...supported the appeal (for early release)," his lawyer Yelena Yevmenova said on NTV television.
He and other scientists had said the satellite technology data he passed to China more than a decade ago was declassified and that the case was politically motivated.
The Kremlin has denied influencing the courts and says it is wrong to describe the treatment of Putin's opponents as a clampdown on dissent.
The hearing had been postponed several times because of ill-health, state-run channel Rossiya said. Bespectacled with greying hair, he looked frail but alert in televised archive footage taken between 2001 and 2004.
He will be freed unless the ruling is challenged but will remain on parole for the rest of his term.
"Danilov has already served two-thirds of this term, behaved well," said Maria Fomushina, spokesman for the court. "The decision also took into account his health condition."
She gave no details of his health, nor did his lawyer.
Danilov, who was first arrested in 2001, was a researcher at Krasnoyarsk State University. He admitted selling information about satellite technology to a Chinese company but said the information had already been available from public sources.
An initial decision to acquit him was overturned and he was sentenced in a second trial.
Danilov's case was one of several during Putin's first spell as president from 2000 until 2008 that were seen by opponents as an attempt to intimidate academics with ties to other countries. Putin started a third term in May.
His opponents cite the jailing of two members of the all-women punk protest band Pussy Riot in August as evidence that the Kremlin is still exploiting the lack of independence of the judiciary to smother dissent.
NO PRECEDENT SET
Jailed Putin critics also include Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the YUKOS oil company and once Russia's richest man, who is still in prison after being arrested in 2003 and convicted of fraud, tax evasion, theft and money laundering.
An aide to Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, had his 13-year sentence on the same charges reduced by three years last month but rights activists said they did not see his or Danilov's case as setting a precedent.
"It's great that Danilov will be paroled. But looking for signs of change in the general course of affairs in single events is simply wrong after half-a-year of (Putin) pursuing repressive measures," said Alexander Cherkasov, head of the human rights group Memorial.
"It's just that so many areas of public life have been spoilt - and people are used to looking for hidden meaning in everything - that they cannot believe it now that law was simply and properly enacted on just one square metre."
Pavel Chikov, head of human rights group Agora, said Lebedev and Danilov would not have been freed if they were still regarded by the Kremlin as a political threat.
"If they are letting Danilov, or Lebedev for that matter, go, that only means the authorities are no longer afraid of them," he said.
Kremlin has been criticised abroad over the sentences handed down on Pussy Riot members who burst into Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedral in February and performed a profane anti-Putin "punk prayer".
Opposition activists say the sentence was harsh, although many Russians opposed the Pussy Riot protest, and that the Kremlin used the case as a warning to other critics.
Since May, the Russian parliament has rushed through laws which Putin's foes say are designed to quell criticism and several opposition leaders have been charged over their role in protests and could be jailed.
Responding to the criticism, the former KGB spy, now 60, offered some flexibility on Monday over the laws that have alarmed rights groups but rights activists said they were not clear what, if any, concessions he might make.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Anna Willard)