A court in Moscow sentenced Alexei Ulyukaev to eight years in jail on Friday after finding the former Russian minister of economic development guilty of graft.
Mr Ulyukaev, who headed the economy ministry until his arrest in November 2016, has denied charges that he solicited and accepted a $2 million illegal payment from Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, as a reward for giving ministerial approval for a controversial privatisation deal.
But on Friday, Judge Larisa Semenov declared Mr Ulyukaev guilty, telling a court in Moscow that the ex-minister had "used the importance and authority of his position" to demand a bribe from Mr Sechin.
Russian prosecutors had recommended that Mr Ulyukaev should serve 10 years in a high-security jail.
However, Judge Semenova delivered a slightly shorter eight-year sentence, saying she had taken mitigating circumstances into account, including the 62-year-old defendant's poor health, elderly parents and young children. Mr Ulyukaev would also face a fine of Rbs 130 million (€1.8 million) and be stripped of all state honours he earned during a career in government service.
The downfall of Mr Ulyukaev, the first serving Russian cabinet minister to be arrested since Josef Stalin's time, was orchestrated by Mr Sechin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and a driving force in the Kremlin's siloviki faction, a feared group with links to the security services.
Mr Sechin refused to attend the trial, but told investigators that Mr Ulyukaev had indicated he wanted a $2 million payment with a two finger gesture at a meeting at the Brics summit in Goa, India in October 2016.
The two men met the following month at Rosneft’s Moscow headquarters where Mr Sechin handed over a bag stuffed with cash. Security officers pounced on Mr Ulyukaev as he left the building. The ex-minister claimed he was unaware of the bag’s incriminating contents. “I am the victim of a monstrous, cruel set-up,” he told the court on the final day of the trial last week.
Russian political observers have seen the case as emblematic of a fierce ongoing struggle between the siloviki and more liberal officials in the Russian elite who battle for influence over Kremlin policymaking. But even seasoned experts have been surprised by the apparently flimsy evidence brought by prosecutors and by the handling of the trial.
Above the fray
Mr Putin has remained above the fray, saying it was up to the Russian judiciary to decide the outcome of the proceedings.
Yet when asked at a press conference on Thursday how Mr Sechin had managed to dodge three court summonses, the Russian president defended the oilman, saying there was no legal obligation for prosecuting witnesses to appear in court.
"Terrible and unfounded," was how Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister who advises Mr Putin on economic affairs, described the sentence delivered to Mr Ulyukaev on Friday. Investigators had provided weak evidence and were biased towards the prosecution, Mr Kudrin wrote on his Twitter account.
The sentencing of Mr Ulyukaev demonstrated that "Putin will back his own, even if they break the old etiquette and are not very good at the job," said Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.