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Former Russian minister handed eight-year jail term for taking huge bribe

Russia's former economics minister has been handed an eight-year prison sentence after he was convicted of accepting a two million dollar (£1.5 million) bribe from President Vladimir Putin's top associate.

The high-profile trial of Alexei Ulyukayev has been widely seen as part of infighting between Kremlin clans.

Ulyukayev was a prominent member of a group of liberal-minded technocrats in the Cabinet, while his nemesis Igor Sechin is the most prominent representative of the hard-line flank of the Russian elite.

Mr Sechin heads Russia's largest oil producer, Rosneft, and his clout seconds only that of Mr Putin.

The 61-year-old Ulyukayev is the highest-ranking Russian official to be arrested in more than two decades.

The case was viewed by many as Mr Sechin's personal vendetta against Ulyukayev, who had been critical of a Rosneft privatisation plan he proposed.

Ulyukayev was detained a year ago at Rosneft's headquarters following a sting operation by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main KGB successor agency.

Mr Sechin claimed in written testimony that Ulyukayev was extorting a bribe in exchange for issuing a positive assessment of Rosneft's bid to take over another oil company, Bashneft.

Ulyukayev denied the charges, calling them a provocation set up by Mr Sechin, arguing that a person would have to be insane to extort a bride from him.

Mr Sechin has flaunted repeated court orders to testify as a witness at Ulyukayev's trial, citing urgent matters of business.

Asked on Thursday about Mr Sechin's failure to attend, Mr Putin said that he saw no violation of legal procedures by his lieutenant.

A Moscow court on Friday also ordered Ulyukayev to pay a 2.2 million dollar (£1.6 million) fine.

Ulyukayev had been under house arrest since his detention in November last year, and was taken into custody after the verdict.

The judge also ruled that he should be held in a maximum security prison. Ulyukayev's lawyers said they would appeal.

Most observers had expected him to get a delayed sentence and be set free, and the ex-minister appeared shaken by the verdict.

Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who has retained influence thanks to his personal ties with Mr Putin, deplored the ruling on Twitter as a "horrible, unfounded verdict".

In a final argument earlier this month, Ulyukayev accused Mr Sechin of staging a "horrific and cruel provocation" against him.

In November 2016, Ulyukayev went to Rosneft's office on Mr Sechin's invitation to discuss the company's operations. He accepted a bag from him while leaving.

He was then arrested by the FSB, which said it opened the bag and found it full of cash.

Ulyukayev testified at the trial that he thought that the bag contained several bottles of wine that Mr Sechin had earlier promised as a gift to him.

In wire tapes played at the trial, Mr Sechin was heard telling Ulyukayev to also take a basket of sausage.

Russian media say that Mr Sechin, an avid hunter, has a habit of presenting his high-level connections with baskets of sausages from his butcher's shop.

Referring to Mr Sechin's failure to appear in court, Ulyukayev said the key witness "disappeared, leaving only a whiff of sulphur in the air" - a reference to his sinister image.

In his final argument, Ulyukayev pleaded not guilty to "those absurd accusations" and likened himself to an "elderly gladiator with a paper sword" trying to fend them off.

He said he was guilty of a different thing: "I too often compromised, looked for easy ways and put my career and well-being above defending principles."

Ulyukayev pledged to devote the rest of his life to "defending people's interests".



From Belfast Telegraph