Former Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev has told a Moscow court that the bribery charge against him was fabricated and accused powerful state oil company chief Igor Sechin of targeting him in a "provocation."
Ulyukayev, whose arrest in November 2016 send shock waves through the business and political circles surrounding President Vladimir Putin, spoke as his trial got under way on August 16.
Prosecutors say Ulyukayev was caught red-handed receiving a $2 million bribe in exchange for his ministry's approval for state oil giant Rosneft to acquire a majority stake in regional oil company Bashneft from the government.
Ulyukayev told the court that he was set up by Sechin and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which Kremlin critics say the Russian authorities use as a tool in political and economic disputes.
"The cash handover was planned by the FSB," Ulyukayev said. "Sechin personally telephoned me and persuaded me to come to Rosneft, saying that he needed to discuss corporate issues with me."
At the Rosneft office, he alleged, Sechin "handed me the cash."
Ulyukayev claimed that Rosneft's security chief at the time, Oleg Feoktistov, was also involved in organizing what he called the "bribery provocation."
Feoktistov, a veteran FSB officer, was hired by Rosneft as security chief in September 2016. In March, Rosneft announced he had left the company and returned to "military service."
Judge Larisa Semyonova rejected a defense motion to send the case back to investigators and adjourned the trial until September 1 after witnesses for the prosecution failed to show up.
Ulyukayev, 61, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He says he is innocent.
His arrest sparked speculation about high-stakes battles in circles close to Putin, who analysts say seeks to maintain his grip on power by playing rival camps against each other.
Sechin is a Kremlin insider who is regarded as a close Putin ally and one of the most powerful people in Russia.
Ulyukayev, who had headed the Economic Development Ministry since 2013 and was deputy chairman of Russia's central bank for a decade before that, was seen as a member of the more liberal camp.
Minutes before the trial began, Ulyukayev -- who was fired by Putin after his arrest -- told reporters he was broadly optimistic.
"In the historical sense this trial will bring advantages to the people, no matter what the result is," said Ulyukayev, who appears to have lost a lot of weight since his arrest in November 2016.
Ulyukayev, who had overseen the massive privatization of state companies, initially opposed the sale of the stake in Bashneft to Rosneft, but later endorsed it after Putin said it could give the state budget a boost.
His arrest came amid a high-profile antigraft campaign and shake-ups among senior Russian officials that observers tied to the presidential election due in March 2018, in which Putin is widely expected to seek and secure a fourth term.
In June 2016, liberal Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh was arrested and accused of accepting a 400,000-euro bribe. He is in jail and has yet to be tried.
In September 2016, Interior Ministry Colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko was arrested after police found $120 million in cash during a raid on his Moscow apartment.
A poll conducted by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center after Ulyukayev was detained indicated that most Russians saw the allegations as the result of a clan war in the government.
The polling agency said that 54 percent of respondents believed the it was most likely an "assertion of power, a settling of scores or a conflict between competing clans."
With reporting by Rapsinews.ru and Tvrain.ru