Edmonton police charge blogger with hate crime, allege people threatened online

EDMONTON — An LBGT activist says she’s relieved and grateful police have charged an Edmonton blogger with a hate crime for allegedly posting online threats against specific people.

Marni Panas complained to police last year after her name turned up on websites investigators say were filled with strong, hate-based rhetoric aimed at politicians and people of different races and sexual orientations.

“To get that call to say that somebody has been charged and they are sitting in a holding cell for this — it was quite emotional,” said Panas, who is a transgender woman.

“You don’t know who is on the other end of these keyboards. You don’t know what they are capable of, and that instills a real fear.”

Police say Barry Winters, 67, has been charged with wilful promotion of hatred. He was released from custody on condition he take the blogs off-line.

Sgt. Gary Willits of the Edmonton Police Hate Crimes Unit said the charge is difficult to prove and he couldn’t remember the last time anyone had ever even been arrested under that section of Criminal Code in the city.

Willits said police received a number of complaints about posts on the blogs that included language promoting people being killed. The investigation included a review of posts going back to 2014.

Willits said police were concerned the websites were attracting a growing following.

“A lot of people have been hiding under the anonymity that they can make comments and not be held accountable,” he said.

“It is one thing to post a comment about something you don’t like, but when you are starting to promote hatred and threaten harm upon an individual and create a following, that is when we are going to start getting involved.”

The charge comes as new numbers from Statistics Canada show there was a sharp spike in police-reported hate crimes in 2015.

The increase was greatest in Alberta, where police reported 193 hate crimes compared with 139 the year before. Most of the crimes involved hatred against Muslims, Arabs, Asians, blacks and Jews.

Willits said police across Canada are co-operating more to monitor and investigate online threats. The key to successful investigations is for people to come forward and file specific complaints, he said.

Panas said it can be difficult to speak up, because people are afraid they could become even bigger targets if they contact police.

But she said the haters win if people give into fear.

“When you see it, report it,” she said. ”Staying silent is being complicit.”

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