, Moscow, Russian Federation, Dec 15 – A Russian court on Friday sentenced former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev to eight years in a penal colony on charges of taking a $2 million bribe from an ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Ulyukayev is the highest-ranking official arrested in Putin’s 18 years in power.
A Moscow court ruled he must also pay a fine of 130 million roubles ($2.2 million) for taking the bribe from Igor Sechin, head of the state oil giant Rosneft, in a sting operation.
Judge Larisa Semyonova said the eight years would be served in a “harsh regime” colony. Prosecutors had sought a ten-year sentence.
Ulyukayev has denied the charges, which he has called “absurd”, saying he was entrapped by Sechin.
Before the ruling he made an effort to appear upbeat with reporters, saying he was expecting a fair hearing and gesturing only to a briefcase of documents when asked if he had brought any belongings with him.
After being handed a bunch of white roses he said, “I’m told that they are from a fan. The important thing is that my wife doesn’t find out.”
Previously he said a long sentence in a harsh-regime colony, most of which are in remote locations and offer prisoners little contact with families, would effectively be a death sentence.
– Sechin absent –
Ulyukayev, who became economic development minister in 2013, was arrested at Rosneft’s headquarters last year after being handed a bag containing $2 million by Sechin, who had asked security forces to set up a sting.
Sechin told investigators that Ulyukayev had demanded the bribe in return for backing a controversial deal in which Rosneft acquired a stake in Bashneft, another state-run oil group.
Ulyukayev had originally opposed the sale of the stake to Rosneft but later endorsed it after Putin said it would help fill state coffers.
The former minister said he believed the bag contained expensive wines that Sechin had promised him to celebrate the deal.
The prosecution did not provide any proof that Ulyukayev opened the bag of marked notes and therefore knew he was receiving a bribe.
The judge accepted the prosecutors’ allegation that the former economy minister had shown Sechin two fingers, which they claimed was code for $2 million.
Sechin has not attended the court hearings despite being summoned as a witness.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused on Friday to comment on the ruling.
– Clan struggle –
For Nikolai Petrov, an independent analyst, the trial represented a “message for the entire political elite” in Russia.
“For the last two and a half years, there has been growing repression in state enterprises and the elites at regional and federal levels,” he told AFP.
This repression has targeted “not the most corrupt, but rather the least protected, with the goal of scaring the rest of the elite into line,” he said.
Ulyukayev found himself isolated and without the support of oligarchs in a power struggle with Sechin, Petrov said.
“This is about a struggle between different clans and the strengthening of Sechin’s group. This fight…is becoming ever more bloody and the Kremlin is forced to maintain a balance as arbitrator,” said political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann.
The former economy minister represented a more liberal wing of the government while Sechin is considered head of the “siloviki”, a group made up of former security or military service officials.
Ulyukayev lost a striking amount of weight while under house arrest and calmly read books by Chekhov and Kafka, as well as Plato’s Apology of Socrates, during the trial.
In his closing speech last week, he asked forgiveness from Russians for ignoring the injustices of the country’s political system while in power and focusing on building his network and advancing his career.
“When everything is good, you shamefully turn away from people’s grief. Forgive me for that, people,” Ulyukayev told the court, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.