Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he found it "strange" that his biggest critic Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison while a man convicted in the same case was let off with a suspended term.
The remark was the first by the Russian leader on the ruling against his arch foe, who was convicted of fraud last month.
It comes after Navalny's surprise release from prison the day after his sentencing, pending an appeal of his five-year jail term, which observers tied to uncertainty over how to handle the charismatic opposition leader.
"Regarding the verdict, trust me, I don't follow these things constantly, but I think it is quite strange that one of the people in the case who began to work with the investigation received a suspended sentence of 4.5 years, and the second person whom you mentioned got slammed with a real five year term," Putin said.
He was speaking during a question-and-answer session with youth activists at the annual Kremlin-organised camp north of Moscow.
Putin was referring to Vyacheslav Opalev, a man whose testimony that Navalny had conspired to defraud the government of the northern Kirov region of 16 million rubles ($500,000) in a timber deal clinched the prosecutors' case against the opponent.
Opalev was convicted but let go with a suspended sentence, while Navalny and his co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov were sentenced to five and four years at penal colonies, respectively.
Putin, who has never referred to Navalny by name, also mentioned the upcoming Moscow mayoral election, which Navalny is contesting.
"The court has to decide what is what... let the people take their decision on whether to trust this or that citizen. We will see what happens during the political campaign," Putin said.
Observers have wrangled with the reasons behind Navalny's release, with some reckoning the Kremlin wants to see him run in the September 8 poll and lose against the overwhelming favourite, pro-Kremlin politician Sergei Sobyanin.
The sentencing of 37-year-old Navalny, who has built a strong following through his anti-corruption blog and rousing political speeches, sent thousands onto the streets in Moscow in protest.
On Friday Navalny's campaign team announced that they have gathered an impressive sum of 30 million rubles ($909,000/ 680,000 euros)