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Russian ex-minister Ulyukayev jailed for eight years over $2 million bribe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former Russian economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was found guilty of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin and sentenced to eight years in jail on Friday.

The high-profile court case shone a rare light on infighting among the Russian elite ahead of a presidential election in March which incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to win and was widely seen as a test of how powerful Sechin, a Putin ally, is.

The verdict and the harsher-than-expected sentence -- Ulyukayev was widely forecast to get a suspended sentence -- is likely to be interpreted as a sign that Sechin’s place at Putin’s side is safe and that Sechin, who advocates strong state control over the economy, is increasingly influential.

A court in Moscow found Ulyukayev guilty of demanding and accepting the bribe on Nov. 14 last year. Ulyukayev had denied the charges, saying he’d thought the bag holding the bribe was a gift of expensive alcohol.

The former minister, who before his arrest was one of the leading figures in a faction of economic liberals who argued for less state control over the economy, says he was set up.

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Sechin is widely seen as the main champion of the opposite view, that the state should consolidate its grip, particularly over the energy sector that provides a large share of Russia’s state revenue through its two biggest companies, Rosneft and Gazprom.

State prosecutors said that Ulyukayev had asked for the bribe in exchange for approving the sale of the state-controlled oil company Bashneft to Rosneft.

State prosecutors hailed Friday’s verdict as “a triumph of justice,” while a Rosneft spokesman said Ulyukayev had been caught “red-handed” and that the evidence against him had been rock solid.

Ulyukayev, who was handcuffed and placed in a courtroom cage after the verdict, said he had been treated unfairly.

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When asked about the case on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment.

Former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin and a strong advocate of less state control over the economy, criticised the verdict.

“It’s a terrible, groundless verdict,” Kudrin said on social media.

“It’s weak work by the investigation... Many face such injustice these days.”

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey and William Maclean