A 28-year old man has been sentenced to six months in jail for desecrating the Latvian flag by hanging from the flagpole of the Smiltene town hall while boozed up. The flagpole snapped and the flag was torn. This according to media reports.
Normally, this would be a case of public drunkeness and property damage or vandalism. What is disturbing is the harsh application of a law that, essentially, "sanctifies" symbols of the state and nation, giving them protection above and beyond other items of public or private property. The reason for this in Latvia as in other states is to create a disincentive for using national symbols (the flag, coat of arms, whatever) in certain forms of protest -- burning, defacement and the like.
While I doubt that our Smiltene boozehound was making any kind of political statement by doing pull-ups (maybe just one :) ) on the town hall flagpole, it is nonetheless both ominous and bizarre that he was sentences under a political law. It would be worse, still, had his actions actually been politically motivated. Is this a hidden warning not to deface the Latvian flag as a protest against, say, budget cuts or some other matter. If so, our Smiltene boozehound is actually a mineshaft canary warning of a latent but very real threat to the full freedom of expression in Latvia.
I don't favor burning flags as a form of protest either here or in the United States, where I grew up. But I do support the First Amendment cases that defend the right to burn one's own property as a form of protest even if that property happens to be a national flag.
As a final note, it may be that the dude in Smiltene got the harsh sentence because he had a previous shortened or suspended sentence for another crime. Even that does not justify harsher sentencing under a law designed to repress free expression. Had the charge been simple drunkeness and vandalism, fine. Repressive laws --no.