‘Loss of confidence’: Putin dismisses Economy Minister Ulyukayev amid corruption probe

Russian Economy Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev who was detained by law enforcement officials on corruption charges, is escorted upon his arrival for a hearing at the Basmanny district court in Moscow, Russia, November 15, 2016. © Maxim Shemetov
Russian Economy Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev has been dismissed from his post as a court in Moscow ordered him to be placed under house arrest. The official is being investigated on charges that he took a $2 million bribe and was involved in large-scale extortion.

Ulyukayev was dismissed from his Cabinet post by a presidential decree on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists. The decision was taken due to "loss of confidence," Peskov said.

He was placed under house arrest for two months until January 2017, a district court judge announced on Tuesday.

Ulyukayev reportedly demanded a bribe for granting a positive conclusion and assessment of transaction on the acquisition of Bashneft by Russia's top oil company Rosneft. He was caught red-handed when receiving the bribe, Russia's Investigative Committee revealed earlier in the day.

According to the Investigative Committee, Ulyukayev threatened he would use the leverage provided by his ministerial post to hinder Rosneft's operations.

Rosneft representatives reported Ulyukayev’s alleged actions to the committee.

“Thanks to the Rosneft representatives’ timely address to law enforcement authorities with a statement about the economy minister’s illegal actions, he was caught red-handed on November 14 this year, while receiving a bribe of US$2 million,” Svetlana Petrenko, deputy head of the Investigative Committee, said in a statement.

Russian investigators had asked the court to order the house arrest of Ulyukayev, Petrenko said.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has appointed Deputy Economy Minister Evgeny Yelin as acting economy minister, a spokeswoman for the PM's office said on Tuesday.

Ulyukayev has been transferred from the Investigative Committee’s building, where he was questioned on Tuesday morning, to Moscow’s Basmanny Court.

The interrogation, during which the minister officially had charges presented against him, lasted about five hours.

Ulyukayev did not plead guilty, an investigator at the Basmanny court said, while noting that the suspect had declined to provide testimony, according to RIA Novosti.

Earlier in the day, Ulyukaev’s attorney, Timofey Gridnev, said in an interview with Business FM that his client claimed to be the victim of “a frame-up against a state official.”

Ulyukayev has been under investigation by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for over a year, a source earlier told RIA Novosti.

An investigator said some eyewitnesses testified against Ulyukaev, noting that the minister had been caught red-handed, TASS reported.

Ulyukayev's defense team have found no relevant evidence proving that the minister took the bribe, his lawyer told the court, according to Interfax. Gridnev asked the court to change the measures from house arrest to travel restrictions.

The minister told the court he was ready to cooperate with the investigation and asked for his pre-trial restrictions to be commuted, saying that he has two elderly parents who depend on him, Interfax reported.

The court denied a softer measure for the minister, saying that it "has grounds to believe" that Ulyukayev may otherwise "escape, interfere with witnesses or in any other way mingle with proceedings on the case."

If proven guilty, he faces a maximum penalty of a fine ranging from 80 to 100 times the sum of the bribe. He can also be stripped of the right to serve in state positions for up to 15 years.

Alternatively, he may face from eight to 15 years behind bars and possibly a fine of 70 times the sum of the bribe.