Court in France Convicts 11 for Harassing Teenager Over Anti-Islam Rant

The case fueled a fierce debate about free speech and blasphemy in the country.

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PARIS — Eleven men and women from around France were found guilty on Wednesday of using the internet to harass a teenager who became the focus of heated debates about free speech and blasphemy after her anti-Islam rant went viral.

Thirteen defendants, ages 18 to 29, went on trial in Paris last month on charges of online harassment and, in some cases, issuing death threats. The court found 10 guilty of harassment and one of making death threats and sentenced them to suspended prison sentences of four to six months. A 12th defendant was found not guilty, and the last defendant’s case was thrown out because of a procedural error.

The teenager, Mila, 18, has endured insults, death threats and threats of rape — more than 100,000 hateful messages, according to her lawyer — since January 2020, when she angrily responded to social media commenters who were insulting her and calling her an affront to Islam because of her sexual orientation.

“I hate religion,” Mila, then 16, shot back in a video. “The Quran is a religion of hatred.” She also used profanity to describe Islam and crude imagery in referring to God.

The flood of messages that followed upended Mila’s life. She was pulled out of school over fears for her safety and still lives under police protection. The New York Times is withholding her last name because she has been subjected to harassment.

The vitriol against Mila fueled fierce debates in France over free speech and religion, especially after the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and the decapitation last year of a teacher who showed similar cartoons during a class discussion on freedom of expression.

The case was a major test for French legislation passed in 2018 that broadens what could be considered online harassment. The accused were all on trial for messages that they had sent or posted on social media last November, when Mila briefly repeated some of her crude comments in another video, prompting a new wave of harassment.

Most of the defendants had posted a single tweet or had sent Mila only one message. But the 2018 law empowers prosecutors to seek convictions against harassers who knew they were contributing to a broader wave of abuse, even if they did not coordinate with each other and even if they did not transmit a flurry of messages.

A court official has refused to fully identify the defendants. It is common in France, especially in cases involving the young, not to publish the names of defendants if they are not public figures.

The trial unfolded over two days last month in a courtroom packed with journalists, onlookers and Mila’s supporters.

The presiding judge elicited gasps and murmurs when he read the defendants’ vulgar, violent messages out loud. Mila and her mother testified at length about the emotional and social toll of the harassment, while the accused mumbled into their masks and stared at their shoes; others clashed verbally with Mila’s lawyer.

The defendants — a mix of Muslims, Christians and atheists with no criminal records — struggled to explain why they had posted vicious messages.

Enzo, 22, a soccer fan training as a luggage handler, had written: “You deserve to have your throat slit.” Lauren, 21, a university student, had implored someone to “crush her skull.”

Most expressed regret for the tone of their messages, and almost all denied that they had meant to harass or threaten Mila, telling the court that they did not expect her to read their messages and that they had no clue they were contributing to a much larger wave of abuse.

The trial was also an important test for a newly created prosecutor’s office that handles online hate speech and harassment cases from around France.

President Emmanuel Macron has made the regulation of online spaces a priority. He recently lamented that the internet was “becoming a space for the worse” where people who insult or threaten others anonymously face few consequences.

“We have abandoned the basic rules of public order when it comes to the internet,” Mr. Macron said last month at a news conference. “We are at a moment in our history where we need to regulate this space.”

This week, a French court ordered Twitter to be more transparent about its efforts to eliminate online hate speech by ruling that it had two months to give activists full access to documents that detail the resources the company dedicates to fighting homophobic, racist and sexist discourse.

Several anti-discrimination groups, including the Union of French Jewish Students and SOS Racism, had sued Twitter for failing to remove hateful comments from the site. “The French justice system has demonstrated that internet giants cannot impose their own law,” they wrote on Tuesday in a statement hailing the court ruling.

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