February 26, 2016 / 3:53 PM / a year ago

Latvian man jailed for petition urging Latvia merger with Russia

RIGA (Reuters) - A Latvian court on Friday sentenced an ethnic Russian resident to six months in prison for launching an online petition calling for the Baltic state to merge with Russia.

Latvia was forcibly incorporated into Stalin's Soviet Union in 1940, during World War Two. It regained independence when the Russian-dominated Soviet Union broke up in 1991, aligned itself with the West and remains deeply wary of Russia next door.

Maksim Koptelov, a 31-year-old-film director, was sentenced for calling for an end to Latvian independence, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

Koptelov, who is one of around 160,000 ethnic Russians in Latvia without citizenship, denied the crime and will launch an appeal, his lawyer Ilona Bulgakova said.

"He didn't mean it seriously ... He wrote and asked people not to take it seriously because it is a joke," she said. "There has to be a clear, specific call [to terminate the independence of the state], but in this case... it was not there."

Independence is a very sensitive subject in Latvia, occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years and where a Russian-speaking minority make up around a quarter of the 2 million population.

Moscow has said it has the right to protect ethnic Russians in its former territories, including Latvia.

Reporting by Gederts Gelzis; Editing by Simon Johnson and Mark Heinrich

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