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title Fleeing from Scientology

July 9, 2001 Issue Full Text

A man who 'interfered with a religion' in California wants to remain in Canada permanently

by Colby Cosh

IT started out, Keith Henson says, as a joke. The American critic of the Church of Scientology was in Toronto May 12 to help picket the church's Canadian headquarters, along with others who believe the religious sect is a rogue cult which has harassed opponents and covered up suspicious deaths within its ranks. "Afterwards, a bunch of us were trolling on the Net and someone joked that I should seek status as a political refugee," he says. "The more we thought about it, the more it seemed a good idea. I was going to go back that Sunday, but I moved the return date on my plane ticket to Monday." Keith Henson still has not used that plane ticket. He remains in Toronto, a fugitive from the law in his home country.

Mr. Henson is wanted on an April 26 conviction for "interfering with a religion" under an obscure section of the California Penal Code. The jury had refused to convict him of terrorism for making jokes on Internet newsgroups about hitting a Scientology compound with a "cruise missile." Previously sued into bankruptcy for posting copyrighted Scientology scriptures to the Net, Mr. Henson has spent much time picketing Scientology installations across North America. The prosecution in his case claimed that he had been "taking down licence plate numbers" of cars at a Scientology facility in California, sometimes following Scientologists home and "yelling at them and doing other weird behaviour," in the words of district attorney Robert Schwartz.

Mr. Henson was to appear for sentencing July 6, but he decided to stay in Toronto and seek the advice of immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann. Mr. Mamann studied the case and told Mr. Henson that he could not advise him to flee from justice, but that he had a "viable case" for refugee status. On May 28, while the paperwork was being readied, Mr. Henson was arrested by a heavily armed SWAT team in an Oakville shopping mall. Canadian immigration authorities had been told that the affable grandfather was an "explosives expert" (which he is) and that the charges against him were related to threats involving explosives (although he professes himself unable to construct a working cruise missile).

Mr. Henson was freed June 8 and is living with an old friend in Toronto while he awaits an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing. His case has attracted little attention in Canada, but critics of Scientology from around the world are following his adventures. He has the support of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose legal director Cindy Cohn said June 22 that "He does not appear to have made any credible threat of physical attack...Mr. Henson has a legal right to express criticisms online without fearing a prison term."

Mr. Henson's exile has already come at considerable personal cost; he was unable to be present for the May 22 death of his father in Arizona. But he is eager to challenge Scientology, which was started in the 1950s by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and is known for celebrity adherents such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. "The cult has managed to get way too much influence over local government in certain parts of California and Florida," he says. "The U.S. State Department will now be obliged to ascertain whether I received a fair trial. They'll have the choice of either backing Scientology or treating it the way General Sherman treated Georgia."

[UPDATE, July 2004: I've given Al Buttnor, a representative of the Church of Scientology in Canada, permission to append the following note to the story as it appears on the Web.
Mr. Cosh brings forth important deficiencies in our refugee system when an individual convicted of a hate crime in the United States can bleed our country's generous benefits set aside for those deserving of true refugee status. It needs to be reiterated that Mr. Henson was not convicted regarding his email posts, but by his actions in following and harassing members of a religion, a crime which, if he were convicted in Canada, would be a felony, not a misdemeanor. The gist of the matter is that Henson created his own problems by his own actions.]