By Alexei Anishchuk
LAKE SELIGER, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he was surprised by the five-year jail term a court handed down to Alexei Navalny, his top critic, when another man convicted in the same embezzlement case received only a suspended prison sentence.
In his first comments on the case since the July 18 verdict, Putin did not make clear if he was suggesting the jail sentence on Navalny was too harsh or the suspended one too lenient.
"I thought it was strange, I will not conceal that, that one of the suspects in the case, who cooperated with the prosecution, got four-and-a-half-years suspended, while the second suspect...was slapped with five years behind bars," Putin said.
"It is up to the court to decide what happened there and how," he told an audience of several thousand pro-Kremlin youth.
Navalny was convicted of embezzling some $500,000 from a state timber firm while Vyacheslav Opalev, a former head of the company, was given a suspended sentence after striking a plea bargain and testifying against his co-accused.
The face of the largest wave of street protests against ex-KGB spy's 13-year rule, Navalny denies any wrongdoing and says the case is an attempt by Putin to silence him.
Putin, dressed casually in a straw yellow shirt and a beige jacket, avoided referring to Navalny by name when responding to a question about the anti-graft blogger, who was released from detention pending appeal - a highly unusual move.
Since his release, Navalny has been busy campaigning in Moscow for a September8 mayoral election. Polls have him trailing far behind close Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin, who is seeking a fresh term.
Critics of Putin, now more than a year into his third presidential term, portray Navalny's prosecution and sentencing as part of a wider crackdown on dissent.
The Kremlin denies using the courts to persecute political opponents but the West has expressed growing concern over human rights in Russia and the treatment of critical voices since Putin returned to the presidency in mid-2012.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Boyle)