A Russian court on Friday sentenced former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev to eight years in prison for bribery.
Ulyukayev is the first serving minister in Russia to be convicted since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He was jailed for demanding a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, head of the state oil giant Rosneft and President Vladmir Putin’s friend. He was also fined 130m roubles ($2.2m). Sechin was asked to testify but he did not turn up.
Ulyukayev was arrested in November last after a sting operation at Rosneft’s offices orchestrated by Sechin with the help of security forces.
Ulyukayev had denied the charges and alleged he was framed.
The news of his sentence has rattled many who believe Ulyukayev is innocent.
Case against Ulyukayev
In his verdict, Judge Larisa Semyonova said Ulyukayev demanded the bribe in return for backing a controversial deal in which Rosneft acquired a stake in Bashneft, another state-run oil group.
At the same time, he told Sechin he would in future obstruct the company’s activities if it rebuffed him, the verdict added.
Oleg Feoktistov, a former secret service officer who worked for Sechin, testified that the deal was struck on the sidelines of a Brics forum in Goa, India. It was simple: Ulyukayev showed Sechin two fingers which was the code for $2 million, Feoktistov cited what Sechin had told him.
Ulyukayev said he had originally opposed Rosneft acquiring a stake in Bashneft but later agreed after Putin said it would help fill state coffers.
He said he believed the bag given to him at Rosneft’s headquarters last year 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 that he knew he was receiving a bribe.
The judge just accepted Feoktistov’s testimony that Ulyukayev’s two-finger sign meant $2 million.
Dmitry Gudkov, former Duma deputy, told Moscow Times: “Governors, officials: if a minister can be sent to prison with this kind of ‘proof,’ then any of you can be sent just as easily.”
Alexei Kudrin, former finance minister, said: “This is a horrible, groundless sentence. The investigators did a poor job. […] Unfortunately, many people now are facing such injustice.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, Russian political scientist, said: “”[The decision] shows only one thing: That Russia’s legal system has been hijacked by the interests of private individuals who use it to further their own interests. The court is not scared of anything it seems, not even the Kremlin.”
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst, told AFP that over past two and a half years, there has been growing repression targeting “not the most corrupt, but rather the least protected, with the goal of scaring the rest of the elite into line”.
According to him, Ulyukayev found himself isolated and without the support of oligarchs in a power struggle with Sechin.