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Prosecutors ask court to send Russian ex-minister to prison

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian prosecutors on Monday asked a court to send a former economic development minister to a high-security prison for 10 years.

Alexei Ulyukayev, the highest-ranking Russian official to have been arrested since 1993, was detained last year at the headquarters of Russia's largest oil producer, the state-owned Rosneft, after a sting operation by Russia's main intelligence agency. Ulyukayev denies the charges and says Rosneft's influential chief executive Igor Sechin has set him up.

The circumstances of the case have ignited speculation that Ulyukayev fell victim to a Kremlin power play by Sechin, a longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin.

A prosecutor on Monday in his remarks during cross-examination asked the court to find Ulyukayev guilty of extorting a $2 million bribe from Sechin and send him to a high-security prison for 10 years as well as fining him roughly $8.5 million.

Ulyukayev deserves such a harsh penalty because his actions "are undermining the authority of the government," the prosecutor told the court.

Prosecutors have said Ulyukayev was extorting a bribe from Sechin in return for giving the green light to Rosneft's purchase of another oil company.

The former minister reiterated his non-guilty plea on Monday, telling the court he would ask the investigators to open a criminal case against Sechin for false testimony.

Ulyukayev has spoken out against increasing government presence in the Russian economy. He had originally opposed Rosneft's bidding for the other company, Bashneft, saying it was wrong for a state-owned company to take part in a privatization drive.

The former ministry has described himself as a victim of a "provocation" staged by Sechin and security officials colluding with hm. Ulyukayev's lawyer insists that his client could not possibly have been extorting a bribe from Sechin in return for giving his approval for Rosneft's purchase of Bashneft because the deal required a government approval that was not in his powers.

The trial has been going on for months, and at some point risked becoming a major humiliation for Sechin who had been summoned to testify.

Sechin has harshly criticized the prosecutors for making some of his conversations public during the trial, saying they contained sensitive information. Some observers have suggested that the ongoing trial may have failed to meet Sechin's expectations and dented his standing.

But Sechin, whose relationship with Putin goes back two decades, has managed to dodge the summons four times, citing urgent matters of business. The court turned down the defense's fifth and final plea last week to summon Sechin, whose testimony was the cornerstone of the case.

This story has been corrected to say that Ulyukayev was charged with taking a bribe, not giving one.