MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court on Friday convicted the first of 17 Russians detained during a protest against Vladimir Putin, sentencing the only member of the group to plead guilty to four and a half years' jail.
The protesters have gained notoriety as the "Bolotnaya 17", after the square where they protested on the eve of Putin's inauguration in May, and have been held up by opposition leaders as a symbol of resistance to a Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Fitness club manager Maxim Luzyanin was accused of taking part in "mass disorder" and of beating up police officers and trying to strangle one.
"I genuinely regret what I did, and if I had another chance I would not have done it," Luzyanin said from behind metal bars at the court.
Activists say the violence was exaggerated by the police and prosecution and fear Luzyanin's guilty plea could now be used as a precedent to prove there was mass disorder and make for heavier sentences for the rest of the accused.
Luzyanin's lawyer Sergei Shushpanov denied that.
"We have no case law. When passing a sentence, a judge cannot cite any other verdict in any other case," he said.
Opposition activists say the Bolotnaya case might 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.
Putin, 60, a former KGB spy 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.
Opposition leaders said the laws and the Pussy Riot case were all part of a campaign to stifle dissent, but Putin said he "tried not to think" about what his opponents called a crackdown and did what he thought necessary.
The May 6 rally across the Moscow River from the Kremlin, where Putin was inaugurated the following day, cost 29 million roubles ($917,700), according to prosecutors.
Most of that was damage to asphalt, which the demonstrators hacked from the ground to throw at police, they said.
Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition activist who helped lead thousands of Russians in the streets in the past year, said the case against Luzyanin had been concocted.
"Virtual charges and virtual complainants. It's absolute fiction," he said at the court. "The police are pushed 10 times harder at any concert than at the May 6 demonstration."
($1 = 31.5995 Russian roubles)
(Writing By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)