Fugitive Scientology critic seeks political asylum in Canada
By Phillip Taylor
Special to freedomforum.org
A Scientology critic who fled to Canada to avoid his conviction in a California court for threatening to interfere with the church's operations has been sentenced to a year in prison.
But supporters of Keith Henson, a former computer engineer and longtime opponent of the Church of Scientology, say he was unfairly convicted for posting his criticism on the Internet and sponsoring protests in front of churches.
Officials at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for one, said the trial judge repeatedly refused to consider Henson's comments in proper context.
"At the end of the day what it comes down to is, this grandfatherly man who is very critical of Scientology is convicted for his speech," said Robin Gross, staff attorney for the EFF, a San Francisco-based group. "The Church of Scientology has been very successful using the law to squelch criticism on the Internet, and he is a victim of that."
But church officials say the criminal case against Henson had absolutely nothing to do the man's speech but with his conduct. The church claimed — and a California jury agreed last April — that Henson created fear among church members through stalking and threats.
The legal battles between Henson and the Church of Scientology date to early 1996 and include the church's successful copyright lawsuit against Henson for excerpting the church's scriptures.
The latest fight between Henson and the church landed in criminal court when the church complained that Henson was carrying picket signs reading "I'm going to annihilate you" and "I will destroy you utterly" and following church members home. The church said that on the Internet, Henson posted similar comments, including one suggesting that he would launch a cruise missile at one of the churches.
Aron Mason, public affairs director for the Church of Scientology, said Henson also publicized the fact that he had a background in weapons technology and held a patent on a missile-launching device.
"You have to take this thing a bit more seriously when you realize he's capable of doing that," Mason said in a telephone interview. "He made it so clear to us that he was serious."
But according to the EFF, the Church of Scientology embarked on a campaign to discredit Henson, creating false claims of stalking and exaggerating the man's postings.
EFF officials said Henson's background is in computer technology, not missile systems, and claimed that if Henson's comments had been taken in context, they would clearly be seen as jokes. The "cruise missile" reference was a response to a joke about the sex life of Tom Cruise, a prominent member of the church.
Shari Steele, EFF executive director, said her group's biggest concern is one of the laws under which Henson was prosecuted. Prosecutors tried Henson under a state hate-crime statute requiring evidence of "force or the threat of force" and that "the speech itself threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat."
Steele said Henson's statements didn't come close to reaching that threshold.
But the law itself is problematic, she said, because it makes speech against a religious, social or fraternal group illegal.
"And not only illegal, criminal," Steele said in a telephone interview. "And if he was stalking, then he should have been prosecuted under the stalking law."
During Henson's trial in Riverside County Court, Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz said the case against Henson had nothing to do with his Internet posts, his picketing or his criticisms of Scientology. He said it had everything to do with Henson stalking and threatening church members at work and at home.
"It's unfathomable to me how anybody could think that you would not be afraid about the type of person we're dealing with right now," Schwarz said in closing arguments.
The jury convicted Henson on the criminal hate-speech charge of threatening to interfere with the church's freedom to practice religion but didn't reach a conviction on two other charges of terrorism.
On July 25, Superior Court Judge Robert Wallerstein sentenced Henson to one year in jail and fined him $3,000. But Wallerstein gave Henson the option of serving 180 days in jail and three years of probation.
Henson, who awaits a hearing in Canada on his status as a political refugee, refused to accept the sentence. He could not be reached for comment before the initial posting of this story. [In an e-mail received by freedomforum.org the day after this story first appeared, Henson answered Schwarz's closing-arguments charge by writing that "in 58 years I have never been even arrested for anything to do with explosives or weapons of any kind, or hurting anyone or damaging property."]
Several Web sites have surfaced to express support for Henson, including one at www.operatingthetan.com and freehenson.tripod.com. There, supporters say Henson didn't have a chance for a fair trial, claiming that the court was suspiciously close with the church.
"What kind of Alice-in-Wonderland Court is it that allows organized criminals to sit in the prosecutor's chair bringing charges against the honest citizens, in which a heavily-armed cult has Mafia lawyers direct the activities of the District Attorney?" an entry at freehenson.tripod.com reads.
Mason of the Church of Scientology said Henson's attempt to gain asylum in Canada smacks of "a conceited attempt to generate more publicity."
"If he has a disagreement with the conviction, he has a place to take it — the appeals court," Mason said.
[In his later e-mail, Henson wrote: "Yeah sure. I spend a year in jail while the appeals process goes on. … Not to mention the fact that an appeal costs $25k or more and the cult has made me bankrupt and tied up all my assets."]
Phillip Taylor, a writer based in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for freedomforum.org.
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