MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court was told on Tuesday that a close ally of President Vladimir Putin personally handed the country’s then economy minister $2 million in cash inside a lockable brown bag as part of an elaborate bribery sting.
Former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev is on trial on charges of extorting the $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, the head of state-owned oil company Rosneft, in exchange for Ulyukayev approving a business deal.
In the courtroom, a state prosecutor read out the transcript of a secret recording of a late-night meeting between Sechin and Ulyukayev on Nov. 14 last year at the Rosneft offices in Moscow, when prosecutors say the money was handed over.
Sechin, who was cooperating with law enforcement officials, was wearing a wire to gather evidence. Ulyukayev says he was framed after having been lured to what he said was an innocent meeting to discuss Rosneft.
The case has thrust into the open simmering tensions between rival Kremlin clans — a spectacle rarely seen in public in the 17 years since Putin first became president.
Sechin, one of Putin’s closest lieutenants, is part of a powerful faction in the Kremlin that favors greater state control over the economy. They have clashed with economic liberals in the government, a group that included Ulyukayev, whose arrest is seen as weakening the latter group’s hand.
In the transcript read out in court on Tuesday, Sechin is quoted asking someone to bring some tea and “a little basket with sausage”, a reference to a gift he gave Ulyukayev.
In another fragment read out by the prosecutor, Sechin is cited as telling Ulyukayev: “Sorry it took a while. I was on a business trip and going here and there while putting together the amount. Consider the mission accomplished. There you go — take it. And this key just in case. And take the basket too.”
The funds were handed over inside a lockable brown bag along with a key and the basket, the state prosecutor said.
When agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service swooped on Ulyukayev as he emerged from the meeting, the minister told agents that the bag he was carrying in the boot of his car contained some “good wine” given to him by Sechin, a state prosecutor told the court.
When agents opened the bag with a key which Ulyukayev said Sechin had given him, they found 200 bundles of $100 bills, the prosecutor said. The basket was also found in the boot.
Ulyukayev’s hands were also found to be contaminated with a tracing agent that the bag had been marked with, the prosecutor said.
Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Catherine Evans