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Russian ex-Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev (center) is escorted by police after a court hearing in Moscow earlier this week.

A Moscow judge will issue a verdict next week in the bribery trial of former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, who called the sting operation that landed him in court a "monstrous and cruel" set-up.

After Ulyukayev delivered an impassioned, accusatory final statement in a trial that brought rifts in President Vladimir Putin's ruling elite into relief, Judge Larisa Semyonova announced that she will deliver the verdict on December 15.

Ulyukayev, who was fired by Putin hours after his arrest in the middle of the night in November 2016, is the highest Russian official to be arrested since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

He is charged with taking a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, the CEO of state oil company Rosneft and a longtime Putin associate. Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence him to 10 years in prison.

'Skilled Mastermind'

In a closing statement laced with criticism of Sechin, whom he described as "a skilled mastermind of dubious dealings," Ulyukayev repeated his protestation of innocence.

"All the materials collected in the case prove that I did not commit any crime," he said. "I am a victim of a monstrous and cruel provocation."

"The charges are absurd," added Ulyukayev, who says he was tricked by Sechin and believed that a bag full of cash that he accepted from Sechin contained a gift of rare wine -- not $2 million in cash.

In the state's closing argument, prosecutor Pavel Filipchuk said evidence presented at trial proved that Ulyukayev took the money as a bribe in exchange for his ministry's approval of the sale of the state-owned regional oil company Bashneft to Rosneft.

Filipchuk dismissed as "groundless" the claims by Ulyukayev that the case was "a provocation by Sechin and the Federal Security Service (FSB)."

Ulyukayev was arrested at Rosneft's Moscow headquarters early on November 15, 2016, after a meeting with Sechin.

Putin fired him the following day, but not before he became the only serving minister to be arrested since Josef Stalin's henchman Lavrenty Beria was detained and executed after the dictator's death in 1953.

The closing arguments came a day after Putin announced he will seek a new six-year term in Russia's March 18 presidential election.

He is almost certain to win but because he would be barred from running again in 2024, political tension in circles close to Putin is likely to increase during his fourth Kremlin term.

'False Reporting'

Ulyukayev is seen as a member of the liberal camp in the Russian ruling elite.

At the previous hearing, on December 4, Ulyukayev urged the authorities to investigate and prosecute Sechin for what he called "false reporting to law enforcement."

Sechin, a longtime former deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin, is perceived as a hard-liner and one of Putin's closest allies.

He has seemed to flaunt his influence by refusing to testify as a witness in court despite four summonses, saying that he was busy with work related to Rosneft -- the biggest Russian producer of oil, a key export.

Ukyukayev emphasized this in his final words in court, saying Sechin's behavior was "amazing."

"The main victim in the case turned into a witness who got lost somewhere between Khanty-Mansiisk and Rome," Ulyukayev said --a reference, in part, to a Siberian trip Sechin cited for one of his absences.

Ulyukayev, who is under house arrest and has looked gaunt throughout the trial but has attracted attention by bringing books by Chekhov, Kafka and other authors to the courtroom, concluded by quoting Socrates.

"The time has come to go -- me to die, you to live on. Which is better only God knows," he said.

Then he wished everybody in the courtroom a "Happy New Year."

With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan, Reuters, Rapsinews.ru, Interfax, and TASS
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has signed a decree ordering what state media outlets called the first mass pardoning of convicts in the Central Asian country's history.

A total of 2,700 convicts were pardoned under the decree signed on December 7, and 956 of them will be released from prison, state media reports said.

Others were serving suspended sentences or were not in prison for other reasons.

Mirziyoev's decree was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the constitution Uzbekistan adopted on December 8, 1992, months after it gained independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The media reports said that the decree differed from previous presidential amnesties because a commission was created in September to determine convicts eligible for pardons.

Several jailed journalists, politicians, and others seen by rights groups as political prisoners have been released since Mirziyoev came to power in September 2016, after the death of longtime autocrat Islam Karimov.

In October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Uzbek authorities had taken "some positive steps" during Mirziyoev’s first year in office and called for "sustainable" improvements in human rights.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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