A French court convicted 11 people of harassing a teenage girl online for her anti-Islam videos in a case that has led to a fierce debate over freedom of expression and the right to insult religions.
The prosecutions were part of a judicial fight against trolling and online abuse after the girl, known as Mila, had to change schools and accept police protection due to death threats.
The Paris court tried 13 people between the ages of 18 and 30 from various French regions accused of harassing Mila, who was sent more than 100,000 abusive messages, including death threats, according to her lawyer.
Eleven received suspended sentences, meaning they will not serve time in jail unless convicted of other crimes, and some were ordered to pay damages of € 1,500 (£ 1,280) and legal fees of € 1,000.
“Social media is like the street,” Chief Justice Michael Humbert said in handing down his sentences. “When you come across someone on the street, you don’t insult them, make fun of them or threaten them. What you don’t do on the street, you don’t do on social media. ”
One of the defendants wrote that Mila deserved “to have her neck cut off”, while others threatened sexual assault.
Since her rants against Islam in 2020, the hitherto unknown schoolgirl has become a divisive public figure in France, seen by supporters as a fearless fighter for free speech and by critics as deliberately provocative and Islamophobic.
“We won, and we will win again,” Mila, 18, told reporters outside of court. “I want us never to make the victims feel guilty again.”
The case has received wide public attention because it touches on highly controversial issues, from cyberbullying to the right to blaspheme and attitudes towards religious minorities.
In a first viral video posted to Instagram in January 2020, Mila, then 16 and openly lesbian, responded to the personal abuse of a boy who she said insulted her for her sexuality “in the name of Allah.”
She launched into an expletive-laden spiel, declaring that “Islam sucks … Your religion sucks” along with other explicit comments about Allah considered highly offensive to practicing Muslims. He published a second such publication in November of the same year.
The strict French laws on hate speech criminalize incitement to hatred against a group on the basis of religion or race, but do not prevent people from criticizing or insulting religious beliefs.
Amid extensive political and media commentary, President Emmanuel Macron came to his defense, saying that “the law is clear. We have the right to blaspheme, criticize and caricature religions ”.
The arguments are reminiscent of the debate in France over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which have been repeatedly published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the name of freedom of expression.
Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamist gunmen in 2014, leaving some of its most famous staff members dead in an assault that deeply shocked France.
In October last year, a school teacher named Samuel Paty was beheaded on the street, having faced an online hate campaign after showing the cartoons to students during a class on freedom of expression.
In Mila’s case, most of the defendants had no criminal record and came from all backgrounds. Some said they simply did not think before sending messages of what they assumed would be anonymous insults.
A 21-year-old language student identified as Lauren G said she was “tired of seeing her (Mila’s) name on my news all the time.”
One of her co-defendants, Axel G, 19, said he reacted with anger because he considered Mila’s comments about Islam to be “racist” and “blasphemous.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism