A French court has convicted 11 of the 13 people charged with harassing and threatening a teenager over her anti-Islam online videos.
The court on Wednesday sentenced the defendants to suspended prison terms of four to six months, meaning they will not serve time in jail unless they are convicted for other offences, and fined them about $1,770 each.
The prosecutions came after the 18-year-old, known as Mila, was forced to change schools and accept police protection due to threats to her life in the wake of her first videos being put online in 2020.
The trial in Paris was the first of its kind since France created a new court in January to prosecute online crimes, including harassment and discrimination.
“Social networks are the street. When you pass someone in the street, you don’t insult them, threaten them, make fun of them,” said Michel Humbert, the presiding judge. “What you don’t do in the street, don’t do on social media.”
‘I don’t like any religion’
Mila, who has been identified only by her first name, testified last month in the landmark cyberbullying case, saying she felt as though she had been “condemned to death”.
She describes herself as an atheist and was 16 when she started posting videos on Instagram and later TikTok, harshly criticising Islam and the Quran.
She has since become a divisive public figure in France, seen by supporters as a symbol of free speech and the right to blasphemy, and by critics as deliberately provocative and Islamophobic.
“I don’t like any religion, not just Islam,” she said during the trial.
Her lawyer, Richard Malka, said she received 100,000 threatening messages, including death and rape threats, and hateful messages about her sexual orientation.
One of them told her she deserved “to have your throat cut”.
The 13 defendants from around France came from various backgrounds and religions and were but a handful of all the people who targeted Mila with online comments.
The others could not be tracked down.
One of the 13 was acquitted because his post – “Blow it up” – was directed at Mila’s Twitter account, not at the young woman. The court dropped the case against another defendant for faulty procedures.
Macron defends ‘right to blaspheme’
The case received such widespread public attention because it touches on several contemporary issues in France, from the effects of cyberbullying and hate speech online to the country’s free speech laws and attitudes to religious minorities.
In a first viral video posted on Instagram in January 2020, Mila responded to personal abuse from a boy who she says insulted her “in the name of Allah”.
She launched into an expletive-laden rant containing comments that would be highly offensive to practising Muslims.
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.
President Emmanuel Macron was among those who came to Mila’s defence, saying that “the law is clear” and French citizens “have the right to blaspheme, to criticise and to caricature religions”.