Last November, one week after Trump's election and just as the "Russian collusion" narrative in the US was getting warmed up, we reported a bizarre incident in the top echelons, one in which Russia's Economy Minister Alexey Ulyukayev was arrested on suspicion of taking a $2 million bribe in return for his ministry’s support of a positive assessment that would allow state oil company Rosneft to complete a deal to purchase the government's stake in another Russian oil major, Bashneft, after he was monitored and his cell phone was bugged by the FSB for more than a year. The bribe in question involved the sale of Rosneft's 50% stake in Bashneft.
"The circumstances of the crime are connected with Alexey Ulyukayev, who occupies a public post in the Russian Federation, receiving $2 million on November 14 for the positive assessment provided by the Economic Development Ministry that allowed Rosneft to complete the deal on purchasing the government's 50 percent stake in Bashneft," said Svetlana Petrenko, deputy head of the Investigative Committee.
Fast forward 13 months when on Friday, the former Russian economy minister was found guilty on the charge of taking a $2 million bribe and sentenced to eight years in prison. He is now the highest-ranking Russian official to have been convicted on corruption charges. The charges were based on the testimony of Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, as well as a on the evidence of a sting operation, in which Sechin personally handed a bag containing $2 million in cash to Ulyukayev, the then-economy minister.
The proceeding caused controversy in Russia, as Sechin delivered his testimony in written form, rather than in person. According to RT, he refused four times to testify in court, citing scheduling differences due to the taxing nature of his job.
The defense argued that he was dodging a personal appearance and violating due process, while critics accused him of being arrogant and considering his position to be above the law. The issue was raised at this week’s Q&A session with President Vladimir Putin, who refrained from criticizing Sechin for his conduct.
According to the court ruling, Ulyukayev extorted the bribe from Sechin, and in so-doing abused his position as member of the Russian cabinet. In his remarks, the presiding judge said “Ulyukayev acted under a preconceived plan, motivated by personal gain and with full understanding that the process of the privatization of Bashneft depended on his decisions.”
The court sentenced him to an eight-year prison term and a fine of over $2.2 million. He was arrested in the courtroom before the sentence hearing proceeded. Prosecutors asked for a sentence of ten years in a penal colony for Ulyukayev.
The former minister pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial and continued to maintain his innocence up until the verdict announcement on Friday. In his last address, he said a ‘not guilty’ verdict would be the only just outcome for his case. After hearing the sentence, Ulyukayev said he considered it unjust. His defense team confirmed that they would appeal the ruling.
Ulyukayev‘s defense argued that the money did change hands between Sechin and Ulyukayev, but that it was an entrapment on the part of the Rosneft head. The then-economy minister was not aware of the cash being inside the bag, his lawyers told the court. In his final plea, the ex-minister reiterated his position. “The case contains no proof of my complicity in bribe-taking whatsoever. Moreover, it testifies that I am a victim of a monstrous provocation,” Ulyukayev said in court earlier this month.
“I am guilty of a different thing. I have served Russian citizens for many years, and I have managed to achieve something, but not enough. Only when I myself got into trouble I started to understand how hard people’s lives are. People, forgive me for this. I am guilty before you,” he added.
After his arrest in mid-November last year, Ulyukayev spent around two days in a pre-trial detention facility before being placed under house arrest at his apartment, located in an elite housing complex in Moscow.
Ulyukayev is the first, and highest-ranked, government minister in Russia’s modern history to be found guilty of corruption by a court.