French court convicts 11 of harassing teenager who posted anti-Islam videos

A French court has convicted 11 people for harassing a teenager online over her anti-Islam videos in a case that has led to a fierce debate about free speech and the right to insult religions.

The prosecutions were part of a judicial fightback against trolling and online abuse after the girl, known as Mila, had to change schools and accept police protection because of death threats.

The court in Paris tried 13 people aged 18 to 30 from several French regions who were charged with harassing Mila, who was sent more than 100,000 abusive messages – including death threats – according to her lawyer.

Eleven were handed suspended sentences – meaning they will not serve time in jail unless they are convicted for other offences – with some ordered to pay damages of €1,500 (£1,280) and legal fees of €1,000.

“Social networks are like the street,” presiding magistrate Michael Humbert said on Wednesday as he handed down his judgments. “When you cross someone in the street, you don’t insult, mock or threaten them. What you don’t do in the street, you don’t do on social media.”

One of those on trial wrote that Mila deserved “to have your throat cut”, while others threatened sexual assault.

Since her rants against Islam in 2020, the previously unknown schoolgirl has become a divisive public figure in France – seen by supporters as a courageous fighter for free speech, and by critics as deliberately provocative and Islamophobic.

“We won – and we will win again,” Mila, 18, told reporters outside the court. “I want us to never again make the victims feel guilty.”

The case has received widespread public attention because it touches on hotly contested issues – from cyberharassment to the right to blaspheme, and attitudes to religious minorities.

In a first viral video posted on Instagram in January 2020, Mila, then 16 and openly lesbian, responded to personal abuse from a boy whom she said insulted her about her sexuality “in the name of Allah”.

She launched into an expletive-laden rant, declaring that “Islam is shit … Your religion is shit” along with other explicit comments about Allah deemed highly offensive to practising Muslims. She published a second such post in November of the same year.

France’s strict hate speech laws criminalise inciting hatred against a group based on their religion or race, but they do not prevent people from criticising or insulting religious beliefs.

Amid wideranging political and media commentary, president Emmanuel Macron came to her defence, saying that “the law is clear. We have the right to blaspheme, to criticise and to caricature religions”.

The arguments recall the debate in France about caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which have been repeatedly printed by 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 profoundly shocked France.

In October last year, a schoolteacher called Samuel Paty was beheaded in the street, having faced an online hate campaign after he showed the cartoons to pupils during a class about free speech.

In the Mila case, most of the accused had no previous criminal records and came from all backgrounds. Some said they simply did not think before messaging 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 all the time in my news feed”.

One of her co-accused, 19-year-old Axel G, said he reacted in anger because he considered Mila’s remarks about Islam to be “racist” and “blasphemous”.

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