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Online Scientology critic seeks political asylum

Usenet as a 'weapon of terror'

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A couple of weeks ago computer engineer Keith Henson was found guilty in California of a criminal act related to posts he made in the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, which contained obviously comical (all right, Sophomoric) references to targeting Scientologists with a nuclear missile.

The jury convicted him of interfering with a religion -- likely due to his habit of picketing near the cult's properties -- but failed to reach a decision on two other patently idiotic charges brought by Deputy District Attorney Robert Schwarz, who, it is claimed, is either a Scientology dupe himself, or on old Elron's posthumous payroll.

So the jury split 9/3 on Schwarz's charge of terrorism and 10/2 on his nearly equally moronic charge of attempted terrorism.

That's right; a prosecutor -- someone who managed to graduate from a university, then a law school, and then pass the California Bar Exam -- actually brought charges of terrorism against someone joking on Usenet about firing a nuclear warhead at a group of people scattered all over the globe.

We conclude that California must have the slackest educational standards in the world if it can, in good faith, award anything higher than a beautician's license to someone unable to noodle out the obvious absurdity in Henson's comment.

Law and Order

Henson's trial has been roundly condemned as a true kangaroo court affair, with serious irregularities of procedure favoring the prosecution and excluding the bulk of Henson's evidence, thereby virtually shutting down the defense. So it's perhaps no surprise that he was convicted on at least one charge.

On 13 May Henson posted to the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup doubts that he'll get a fair sentence as well. "Late last week I talked to Garry Davis, the parole officer who is writing the report for my case. He expressed the opinion that this was more of political case than a criminal one, and that the political pressure to put me in jail was very high," he wrote.

The parole officer reckoned Henson would get something like a year in stir for his conviction on interfering with a religion, which, we'll admit freely, is a serious offence where stiff penalties are entirely appropriate.

But numerous peculiarities in Henson's trial leave considerable doubt about his actual guilt; and calling Scientology a 'religion' really is an awful lot like calling Dunkin' Donuts a 'restaurant'.

Political Embarrassment

So as the handwriting on the wall became legible, Henson skipped to Canada and set up in Toronto. He's since retained a local lawyer through whom he filed for political asylum with the Canadian government.

We're not terribly excited by his chances of seeing the application granted, as the Canadian government stands to gain little from humiliating Uncle Sam in this way.

But Hanson's move, taken as a publicity stunt, is sweet. Here's a guy who hails from a country that bleats about democracy and liberty 'til it's blue in the face, lectures the world on human rights like a scolding nanny at every opportunity, and then convicts a fellow for exercising his right to criticize, protest and picket against an immensely well-heeled, and some say, immensely dangerous, cult.

'Democracy' and 'liberty' in the sunny State of California never looked more like the empty incantations they really are.

And who knows; the Canadian courts may well put political convenience aside and consider Henson's application on the merits. And in that case we think he's got a decent chance of qualifying. He certainly looks to us like someone facing punishment by the state for expressing his beliefs in public. ®

Related Link

Background on Henson's case

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