MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prominent Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny said on Saturday the jail sentence handed to a protester against President Vladimir Putin highlighted the government's harsh approach to dissent.
Fitness club manager Maxim Luzyanin, the first of 17 people arrested during a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration in May, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years on Friday for "mass disorder" and violence against the police.
"If earlier there were minor administrative arrests, soft harassment, now - jail time," Navalny, one of the top faces during the past year of protests against Putin's 12-year rule, told the OpenSpace.ru political internet portal.
"The time has passed when they were afraid to jail because they didn't want people to think about '37," the blogger added, referring to Great Purge of the 1937, a year of mass political repressions and murders orchestrated by Joseph Stalin.
Luzyanin, one of the "Bolotnaya 17" detained - named after the square where they protested, was the only member of the group to plead guilty.
Opposition activists say the Bolotnaya case could achieve the notoriety of the Pussy Riot trial, in which three members of the punk band were sentenced to two years in jail after performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow's main cathedral in February.
Luzyanin's sentence does not bode well for the rest of those detained, Navalny said.
"This is either a sign that they will give long sentences to those who will not agree to a deal with investigators, or a sign of the widespread Russian and worldwide practice when the first to confess and cooperate gets immediately a long sentence, to scare the rest to death," he said.
The opposition movement, which had drawn tens of thousands demonstrators in Moscow in the months following the December 4 parliamentary and March 4 presidential election, has dwindled in recent months, failing to unify and mobilise activists.
Putin, who has ruled Russia since 2000 either as president or prime minister, has rushed a series of laws through parliament, such as increasing fines for protesters who step out of line, since his return to the Kremlin.
Russia's investigative committee, which has launched a series of criminal proceedings against opposition leaders in recent months, issued a stark warning last month.
"Those who think they can with impunity organise riots, plan and prepare terrorist attacks and other acts that threaten the lives and health of Russians, you underestimate the Russian special services' professionalism," a statement said.
Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Pravin Char