The anti-Islam rant of a French teenager sparked death threats. Now 13 are on trial.

PARIS – The 16-year-old Frenchwoman shared very personal details about her life in a livestream on Instagram, including her attraction to women. But not black or Arab women, she said.

When insults and death threats started pouring in to her Instagram account in response to her comments in January 2020, with some viewers claiming she was an affront to Islam, teenager Mila dug in, posting quickly another video.

“I hate religion,” she said. “The Koran is a religion of hatred. She also used blasphemy to describe Islam and the crudest imagery when referring to God.

The onslaught of threats that followed after the video went viral led 13 people to court on charges of online harassment.

The case has shed light on the bubbling French debate over freedom of expression and blasphemy, particularly when it touches on Islam. It is also a historic test for recent legislation which broadens the French definition of cyberstalking with regard to attacks on the Internet, where vitriol abounds, the debate modulated less.

“We set the rules for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable,” said Michaël Humbert, the chairman of the trial.

Some have turned to history to capture the brutality of what Mila has experienced online. Mila’s attorney said she suffered digital stoning. The prosecutor in the case spoke of a “Lynch 2.0”.

More than a year after Mila – the New York Times withholds her last name because she was harassed – posted her videos, her life remains in turmoil. She lives under police protection and no longer attends school in person.

The 13 defendants, some teenagers themselves, are on trial in Paris, most of them accused of making death threats. They risk jail. The verdict is expected Wednesday.

Most defendants expressed regret over the tone of their comments online – but the case has taken on a life of its own.

He laid bare the deep polarization in French society over freedom of expression following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the beheading last year of a teacher who showed similar cartoons in a lesson. debate on freedom of expression.

Some of the defendants said they had no intention of harassing or threatening Mila. They were just joking, letting off steam or trying to attract followers, they said.

But many of the comments were vitriolic in the extreme. The lawsuit only concerns messages sent in November, after Mila posted another video that described her continued online harassment – and repeated some of her own crude images, which sparked a flood of new digital attacks.

When the presiding judge read some of them aloud at trial, they caused gasps.

One, from an 18-year-old psychology student named N’Aissita, said: “It would be a real pleasure to slash your body with my finest knife and leave it to rot in the woods. Another, of a 19-year-old customs officer named Adam, said: “Someone is going to come to your house, someone is going to tie you up and torture you.

(A court official declined to fully identify the defendants to The Times; it’s common in France, especially in cases involving young people, not to publish the names of defendants if they are not public figures.)

Mila has repeatedly said that she does not want to be co-opted by politicians of any ideology. But many conservatives have championed her cause, and she says she feels abandoned by feminist and LGBTQ groups, accusing them of being afraid to defend her right to criticize religions for fear of offending Muslims. .

“I am abandoned by a fragile and cowardly nation,” she said.

For Mila’s defenders, the virulence directed against her shows that the French model of secularism and freedom of expression is under attack.

“We have gone mad,” President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview last year when asked about Mila. In France, he said, any religion can be criticized, “and we must not tolerate any violence because of this criticism.”

Mr Macron himself has been at the center of the bitter struggle against French values ​​and his treatment of his Muslim citizens. He pledged to defeat what he called Islamist “separatism” or the undermining of French values ​​of secularism and freedom of expression. Several terrorist attacks over the past year have hardened French society’s sentiment towards extremists within it, causing some French Muslims to fear being unfairly stigmatized.

In a TV interview weeks after her first video, Mila said she was targeting Islam as a religion, not those who practice it in peace, and apologized if she had hurt those people with her comments.

This is an important distinction in France, which criminalizes certain hate speech but does not prohibit blasphemy. The law makes the difference between mocking a religion and denigrating its followers. On this basis, prosecutors quickly dropped an investigation they had opened against Mila on suspicion of incitement to racial hatred.

Instead, police have opened an investigation into those who pursued them online, based on the Cyberbullying Law passed in 2018. The law allows prosecutors to seek convictions against stalkers who knew that they were contributing to a wider wave of abuse, even if they didn’t. coordinate with each other and even if they have posted or sent a single comment.

In a recently published book, Mila reconsidered some of her regrets, saying that at the time of the TV interview she was desperate to calm the situation down, but that she shouldn’t have to apologize for using legally his freedom of expression.

The defendants were charged with online harassment, punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros, or nearly $ 36,000. Those accused of death threats face up to three years in prison and a fine of € 45,000.

Defense lawyers have asked why these 13 people were chosen, as thousands of people attacked Mila online.

The prosecutor said he also expects others to be held to account.

“Social media is not a lawless Wild West,” said prosecutor Gregory Weill, who heads a new office to deal with hate speech and online harassment in France.

Yet Mr. Weill only asked for short suspended prison sentences for 12 of the defendants, all of whom were first-time offenders. (He recommended that the charges against 13 be dropped.) The court could be more severe in the sentences it imposes.

For two long days last month, the case against the 13 unfolded in front of a crowded courtroom.

Mila’s mother said her daughter had experienced an endless “tsunami” of messages, causing nightmares, depression and trauma. Mila fought off criticism forcefully, but also tore it up.

“I feel like I have rows of knives on my back all the time,” she said.

She has dismissed suggestions that she should quit social media, where she still faces criticism but also posts typical teen content like videos of herself lip-syncing songs.

“I see it as a woman who has been raped in the street and who is told not to go out so that she is no longer raped,” said Mila. She added that she didn’t like all religions, not just Islam.

Richard Malka, Mila’s lawyer, lambasted the defendants as being quick to feel offended but slow to realize the consequences of their actions.

“You’ve made it radioactive, all of you,” Malka said. “You have condemned her to loneliness.

Although some of the defendants declared themselves to be Muslims, a number of them declared themselves atheists. Some said Mila’s comments made them angry because they had Muslim friends or found her videos disrespectful, causing them to act thoughtlessly.

“I reacted in the heat of the moment,” Axel, a 20-year-old from southwestern France, told the court. “I don’t care about religion, but all religions should be equal and respected.”

One of the defendants, Corentin, a 23-year-old school teacher, said he could not understand religious intolerance. In his Twitter post, which included a wish for Mila to die, Corentin said he was in no risk of prosecution because he was “white and an unbeliever.”

And when Mila’s lawyer argued that religions are not due to any respect and that respect for religious beliefs “leads to horrors,” N’Aissita, the psychology student who wrote about cutting Mila with a knife, objected.

“If religious beliefs had been respected, we wouldn’t be here,” she retorted.

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