A Moscow court has found former Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev guilty of taking a "large bribe" in a high-profile corruption case and sentenced him to eight years in a strict-regime prison.
Ulyukayev called the sentence "unfair" as he was led from the courtroom in handcuffs after the December 15 hearing, and another prominent former government minister tweeted that the verdict was "horrible."
Judge Larisa Semyonova read out the verdict and sentence after a delay of some 90 minutes in starting the hearing. The court barred media from broadcasting the hearing live.
"Ulyukayev knew and was aware of the character of his actions," Semyonova said during the reading of the verdict, which lasted nearly three hours.
Ulyukayev is the highest-ranking official to be arrested since the Stalin era, and the case underscored rifts in Russia's ruling elite ahead of an election that seems certain to hand President Vladimir Putin a six-year term that could be his last.
Ukyukayev was accused of taking a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin -- the CEO of state oil giant Rosneft and a longtime associate of Putin -- in exchange for his ministry's approval of the sale of regional oil company Bashneft to Rosneft.
Shortly after the hearing, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on Twitter that the verdict was "horrible" and "unfounded."
"Alas, one often encounters such injustice these days," he wrote.
In addition to the prison sentence, the judge ordered Ulyukayev to pay a fine of 130 million rubles ($2.2 million) and barred him from holding public office for eight years after he is released from prison.
Ulyukayev was handcuffed and taken from the courtroom into custody following the sentence.
Considering the 13 months he has already served in custody, mostly under house arrest, he would be released in 2023.
As guards removed the former minister, he shouted to journalists that the sentence was "unfair" but that he "continues to hope."
Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Ulyukayev to 10 years in prison and to fine him some $8.5 million.
Defense attorneys told journalists after the hearing that they would appeal the conviction and the sentence to the Moscow City Court.
As he waited for the judge to appear and start the hearing at the Zamoskovetsky district court, Ulyukayev told journalists that he expected "justice."
Prosecutors have asked the court to sentence Ulyukayev to 10-years in a "harsh regime" prison and to fine him some $8.5 million.
Ulyukayev, 61, has denied the accusation and said he was the victim of a set-up.
"All the materials collected in the case prove that I did not commit any crime," he said during his trial. "I am a victim of a monstrous and cruel provocation."
Ulyukayev claimed he was tricked by Sechin and believed that a bag full of money that he accepted from Sechin contained a gift of rare wine -- not $2 million in cash.
Sechin is a powerful, longtime ally of Putin, who is all but certain to win a fourth presidential term in a March 18 election.
Prominent liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who has declared his candidacy in the election, wrote on Twitter that the conviction was "an act of intimidation" and compared it to the 2015 killing of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin.
"One can be a person like Nemtsov and one can be a person like Ulyukayev," Yavlinsky wrote. "The outcome is the same.... This trial is not to be trusted at all. And it is only the beginning."
Former Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Aleksashenko posted on Twitter that the conviction was "a clear warning about the rules of the game" to all who believe in trying to change the system from within.
In the state's closing argument on December 7, prosecutor Pavel Filipchuk said evidence 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" Ulyukayev’s allegations that the case was a set-up by Sechin and Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
In reading the verdict, the court accepted all the prosecution's arguments and said there was no reason to doubt the motives or actions of the FSB.
Ulyukayev is seen as a member of the liberal camp in the Russian ruling elite, while Sechin -- a longtime former deputy chief of staff at the Kremlin -- is perceived as a hard-liner and one of Putin's closest allies.
Ulyukayev was arrested at Rosneft's Moscow headquarters early on November 15, 2016, hours 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.
Putin weighed in on the trial during his annual press conference on December 14, responding to a journalist who asked about case and about Sechin's refusal to appear in court and testify as a witness despite being summoned four times.
Putin said Sechin's failure to testify was not illegal, but the president seemed to suggest he was displeased by the refusal, saying at the Rosneft chief "could have come" to the trial.
Speaking after the verdict, Rosneft spokesman and former pro-Kremlin television personality Mikhail Leontyev claimed that Ulyukayev had been caught "red-handed" and "there wasn't really any need for further proof."
"Ulyukayev's guilt is obvious," Leontyev told the Interfax news agency.
Prosecutors said on December 15 that it was possible Sechin would be summoned again when Ulyukayev's appeal is heard.
With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan, Rapsi, Interfax, Gazeta.ru, Kommersant, and Vedomosti