MOSCOW - A lone protester detained in a small city east of Moscow earlier this month for spitting on an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly been sentenced to 15 days in prison after being convicted of "minor hooliganism."
Dimitry Karuyev insists he only sneezed on the photo, but the incident nevertheless shows how Russian authorities are cracking down on dissenters as Putin begins his third term in office amid unprecedented protests against him.
Two men were detained in Moscow earlier this week for allegedly assaulting riot police during a May 6 protest that turned violent. Several dozen protesters and about 30 police officers were injured in the scuffle that ended with hundreds detained and several police helmets bobbing in the Moscow River.
A third person, an 18-year-old woman named Alexandra Dukhanina who appeared in a widely published photo of the May 6 rally, has also been placed under house arrest while awaiting trial for allegedly taking part in "violent activity" during the protest.
Each of the three face a maximum of 5 years in prison if convicted.
Russian news reports speculate the three were singled out after they were identified in videos and photos of the melee posted online.
Analysts here have said it's becoming apparent that Putin and his inner circle have decided to use a heavy hand when dealing with the nascent protest movement.
That became clear when, in a symbolic move earlier this month, Putin named an assembly line worker as his envoy to the Urals. During the contentious presidential campaign the man became famous in Russia after offering to come to Moscow and clear the protesters off the streets.
Authorities also jailed two prominent protest leaders, anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny and radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov, for 15 days earlier this month for their part in organizing the May 6 protest and subsequent demonstrations. Police are reportedly exploring further charges that could put them behind bars for a much longer time.
The ruling United Russia party, meanwhile, has spearheaded an effort to increase fines and penalties significantly for unsanctioned protests.
The opposition remains deeply divided, but leaders have pledged to mount another large protest on June 12 and are battling with municipal authorities for a permit.
In Moscow today a heavy police presence was on hand to keep an eye on a protest, small but persistent, that has taken place on the last day of every month that ends in 31. At least 80 people were detained in the capital and dozens more in smaller rallies around the country.