Russian ex-minister protests innocence at corruption trial

Moscow (AFP) –


Russia's former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev on Tuesday insisted he was innocent as he arrived for the start of his high-profile bribery trial in Moscow.

Ulyukayev, 61, was arrested in November 2016 while still a minister, the first time in decades an acting cabinet member had been detained and criminally charged.

He denies having taken a $2 million kickback (1.7 million euros) to clear state oil giant Rosneft to acquire a stake in oil firm Bashneft.

On Tuesday, a federal prison service car took Ulyukayev from his home, where he is under house arrest, to Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky district court.

Asked by journalists outside the courthouse if he acknowledged his guilt, Ulyukayev said: "What do you think? Of course not."

Investigators say Ulyukayev was extorting a bribe from Rosneft and was caught red-handed accepting the cash. The person who allegedly paid the bribe however has not been revealed.

Sources said Ulyukayev was under security service surveillance, who had also tapped his phone.

If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

Tuesday's hearing was a preliminary closed session to determine how the trial will proceed.

Ulyukayev's arrest was greeted with shock and bewilderment in Russia, unleashing speculation that it could be part of a power struggle inside the government ahead of next year's presidential elections.

An uncharismatic official, he had been charged with the daunting task of pulling Russia out of economic crisis, and was considered part of the liberal wing of the government.