Russian ex-minister gives final argument in corruption trial

MOSCOW — Wrapping up one of Russia's most high-profile trials of the year, a former economic development minister charged with bribery on Thursday accused an oil executive of setting him up and apologized for "turning back on other people's misfortunes."

Alexei Ulyukayev, the highest-ranking Russian official to be arrested since 1993, was detained last year at the headquarters of Russia's largest oil producer, the state-owned Rosneft, after a sting operation by Russia's main intelligence agency. Prosecutors say he accepted a $2 million bribe from Rosneft's influential CEO, Igor Sechin, for giving the company the green light for privatizing another oil firm.

The circumstances of the case have ignited speculation that Ulyukayev was caught in a Kremlin power play against Sechin, a longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin.

In his final argument on Thursday, Ulyukayev pleaded not guilty and accused Sechin of setting him up.

"A horrific and cruel provocation has been perpetrated against me," he said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.

Sechin, whose testimony was the cornerstone of the case against the former minister, was summoned to testify in court four times but he did not show up, citing urgent matters of business.

Referring to a common perception of Sechin as a dark force in Russian politics, Ulyakayev said in court on Thursday that the key witness "disappeared — what was left was a whiff of sulfur in the air."

Ulyukaev went to Sechin's office in November last year to discuss Rosneft's affairs, and was arrested as he was leaving the building with a bag full of cash that Sechin had given him. Ulyukayev told the court that he thought the bag contained a bottle of wine and a basket filled with sausages.

In wire tapes played out to the court earlier in the trial, Sechin was heard telling Ulyukayev to take the bag with the sausage. Russian media has reported that Sechin has a tradition of gifting people baskets of sausages from his own butcher's shop.

Ulyukayev could face a lengthy prison term if found guilty. Prosecutors have asked the court to send him to a high-security prison for ten years, arguing that Ulyukayev's actions "are undermining the authority of the government."

Ulyukayev told the court on Thursday that he is not guilty of "those absurd accusations but guilty of a different thing: I often compromised. I was a hypocrite. I love taking gifts and giving gifts. When you're doing all right, you shamelessly turn your back on other people's misfortunes."

Ulyukayev asked for "people's" forgiveness and pledged to devote rest of his life to "defending people's interests."

The court is expected to deliver the verdict next week.

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