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Vladimir Putin

In rare trial of top Russia official, former economy minister claims Vladimir Putin’s ally entrapped him into taking US$2 million bribe

Ulyukayev’s arrest last year sent shock waves through Russia’s liberal elite and it is the highest-profile criminal case against a top official in decades

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 August, 2017, 9:57pm

Russia’s former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev on Wednesday accused the head of state oil giant Rosneft, a powerful ally of President Vladimir Putin, of personally entrapping him as he is accused of taking a massive bribe.

Russia on Wednesday began the first full hearing in Ulyukayev’s bribery trial, the highest-profile criminal case against a top official in decades.

Ulyukayev was arrested in November while still a minister, allegedly caught red-handed after demanding a US$2 million bribe in return for green-lighting state oil giant Rosneft’s acquisition of a stake in another oil company Bashneft.

The 61-year-old denies the charge of massive official bribe-taking, for which he could face up to 15 years in prison.

In court he angrily defended himself, saying he was seized in a sting operation organised by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in “a provocation organised from on high on the basis of a false accusation.”

Ulyukayev said the security services set up the sting on the basis of “fabricated” accusations, “based solely on Sechin’s claims”.

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He said he was lured to the Rosneft offices by Sechin. It was there that a case containing the bribe money was handed over. Ulyukayev was arrested as he tried to drive away with the money in the boot of his car.

Ulyukayev said he went to the meeting after “Sechin called me personally ... and persuaded me to come to Rosneft”.

The prosecution concurs that Sechin set up the meeting and handed over the money, but said he did this in cooperation with the security forces after Ulyukayev demanded the money at a summit in India in return for approving the high-profile Bashneft deal.

Ulyukayev had originally opposed the sale of the stake in Bashneft to Rosneft but later endorsed it after Putin said it could help fill state coffers.

Rosneft’s spokesman Mikhail Leontyev told RIA Novosti state news agency: “The fact remains: Ulyukayev himself demanded unlawful reward for carrying out his official duties, he came to collect it himself and himself left the meeting place with the money. What else can you add?”

The prosecution has asked for Sechin to be summoned as a witness at the trial. A courtroom showdown between such senior figures would be highly unusual and it is unclear whether Sechin will attend in person.

Ulyukayev himself demanded unlawful reward for carrying out his official duties, he came to collect it himself and himself left the meeting place with the money
Mikhail Leontyev, Rosneft spokesman

Sechin, 56, formerly served as deputy prime minister and as Putin’s deputy chief of staff and adviser and is a close confidant of the Kremlin strongman. Since taking charge of Rosneft in 2012, he has built it up into the world’s largest publicly traded oil company.

A fluent Portuguese speaker, he worked as a military interpreter in Mozambique and Angola and unconfirmed rumours swirl that he was a KGB spy.

He worked with Putin in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s and moved with him to Moscow to take up posts in the Kremlin. He is seen as a key figure in the clan of powerful security figures known as the siloviki.

Wearing a striped blue polo shirt, Ulyukayev sat at a table in the packed courtroom in Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky District Court.

He is being held under house arrest, not in jail, and told journalists before the hearing that he has been reading a short story by Anton Chekhov called Murder.

“Chekhov writes a lot about courts and investigators. Nothing has changed in 150 years,” he said.

Ulyukayev’s arrest last year sent shock waves through Russia’s elite.

Recognised as a member of the government’s liberal wing, Ulyukayev had worked with Yegor Gaidar, a former liberal prime minister who masterminded the “shock therapy” economic reforms of the early 1990s blamed by Russians for wiping out their savings.

He had called for reforms including lifting the age of retirement and liberalising the labour market.

Putin sacked him as economy minister – a job he had held since 2013 – in the wake of his detention.

The next hearing in his trial will be on September 1.