YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Exiled economist Sergei Guriev turned down President Vladimir Putin's invitation on Tuesday to return to Russia, saying he preferred freedom to the prospect of further harassment at the hands of federal investigators.
Guriev, a leading economist well known to foreign investors, confirmed last week that he had joined his family in France after hostile questioning by officers from the Investigative Committee, Russia's answer to the American FBI.
The case has gained publicity because of Guriev's high-profile role as an adviser and speechwriter to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who switched roles with Putin on the latter's return to the presidency just over a year ago.
Guriev has also been an outspoken critic of corruption among Russia's political elite, and his supporters have portrayed his departure as a sign of a growing clampdown on groups and individuals that are independent or critical of the Kremlin.
Putin, speaking at a Russia-European Union summit, said the story had been overblown and that Guriev would be welcome to return home to Russia.
"Nobody threatened him," Putin told a news conference in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. "If he wants to return, let him return."
Guriev, who stepped down last week as rector of Moscow's prestigious New Economic School, said Putin's assurances were not enough to make him change his mind after he faced intrusive questioning as a witness in an investigation into Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who was jailed for fraud in 2005.
The liberal economist co-authored a report to Medvedev's human rights council that was critical of Khodorkovsky's second conviction in 2010.
"I think it is safer for me to be a free person and not to return," Guriev, 41, said in an email exchange.
"(Putin) said I am a free person to return if I like. I have heard that he said that before - (but the Investigative Committee's) work and threats continued and even intensified after that."
Russian opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who was in Geneva to pick up a human rights prize, said he too was staying out of Russia.
"I kept travelling back and forth until late February when it became clear that I might be part of this ongoing investigation of the activities of the political protestors," he said at a press conference.
"Right now I have serious doubts that if I return to Moscow I will be able to travel back. So for the time being I refrain from returning to Russia."
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Yekaterinburg and Tom Miles in Geneva; Reporting and writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Andrew Heavens)