Europe

A French Teenager’s Anti-Islam Rant Unleashed Death Threats. Now 13 Are on Trial.

PARIS — The French girl, 16, was sharing highly personal details about her life in a livestream on Instagram, including her attraction to women. Just 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, some from viewers saying she was an affront to Islam, the teenager, Mila, dug in, quickly posting another video.

“I hate religion,” she declared. “The Quran is a religion of hatred.” She also used profanity to describe Islam and the crudest of imagery in referring to God.

The ensuing onslaught of threats after the video went viral has landed 13 people in court on charges of online harassment.

The case has put a spotlight on the roiling French debate over freedom of expression and blasphemy, especially when it touches on Islam. It is also a landmark test for recent legislation that broadens France’s definition of cyberharassment in regards to attacks on the internet, where vitriol is plentiful, modulated debate less so.

“We are setting the rules of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable,” Michaël Humbert, the presiding judge, said at the trial.

Some looked to history to capture the brutality of what Mila experienced online. Mila’s lawyer said she had been subjected to a digital stoning. The prosecutor in the case spoke of a “lynching 2.0.”

More than a year after Mila — The New York Times is withholding her last name because she has been the subject of harassment — posted her videos, her life remains in a tumult. She lives under police protection and she no longer attends school in person.

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

Most of the defendants have expressed regrets about the tone of their online comments — but the case has taken on a life of its own.

It has laid bare the deep polarization in French society over free speech in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 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.

Some of the defendants said they had no intention of harassing or threatening Mila. They were merely joking, venting or trying to attract followers, they said.

But many of the comments were vitriolic in the extreme. The trial only concerns messages sent in November, after Mila posted another video that described her continual online harassment — and repeated some of her own crude imagery, which set off a flood of new digital attacks.

When the presiding judge read some of them out loud at trial, they elicited gasps.

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

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

Mila has said repeatedly 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 L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy 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 France’s model of secularism and freedom of expression are 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 that criticism.”

Mr. Macron himself has been at the center of the fraught tug of war over French values and its treatment of its Muslim citizens. He has vowed to defeat what he has called Islamist “separatism” or the undermining of France’s values of secularism and freedom of expression. Several terrorist attacks over the past year have hardened sentiment in French society over extremists in its midst, raising fears among some French Muslims of being unfairly stigmatized.

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

That is an important distinction in France, which criminalizes some hate speech but does not outlaw blasphemy. The law differentiates between mocking a religion and denigrating its believers. On that basis, prosecutors quickly dropped an investigation they had opened against Mila on suspicion of incitement of racial hatred.

Instead, the police opened an investigation into those who went after her online, based on the cyberharassment law passed in 2018. The law enables 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 posted or sent only one comment.

In a recently published book, Mila walked back some of her regrets, saying that at the time of the television interview she was desperate to calm the situation down but that she shouldn’t have to apologize for legally using her free speech.

The defendants have been charged with online harassment, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros, or nearly $36,000. Those charged with making death threats face up to three years in prison and a €45,000 fine.

The defense lawyers asked why these 13 were chosen, when thousands of people attacked Mila online.

The prosecutor has said he expects to hold others to account, as well.

“Social media is not a lawless Wild West,” said the prosecutor, Grégory Weill, who heads a new office handling online hate speech and harassment around France.

Still, Mr. Weill requested only short suspended prison sentences for 12 of the accused, all of whom were first offenders. (He recommended charges against the 13th be dropped.) The court could be more severe in any sentences it imposes.

Over two long days last month, the case against the 13 unfolded before a packed courtroom.

Mila’s mother said her daughter had experienced an endless “tsunami” of messages, causing nightmares, depression and trauma. Mila pushed back forcefully against critics, but also teared up.

“I feel like I constantly have lines of knives in my back,” she testified.

She rejected suggestions that she should quit social media, where she still clashes with critics but also posts typical teenager content, like videos of herself lip-syncing songs.

“I see this like a woman who was raped in the street and who is told not to go out anymore so that she isn’t raped again,” Mila said. She added that she disliked all religions, not just Islam.

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

“You made her radioactive, all of you,” Mr. Malka said. “You sentenced her to solitude.”

Although some defendants said they were Muslim, a number of them declared they were atheists. Some said Mila’s comments angered them because they had Muslim friends or found her videos disrespectful, leading them to act without thinking.

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

One of the accused, Corentin, a 23-year-old school monitor, said he could not fathom religious intolerance. In his Twitter post, which included a wish that Mila would die, Corentin said he ran no risk of prosecution because he is “white and a nonbeliever.”

And when Mila’s lawyer argued that religions are not owed any respect and that respecting religious beliefs “leads to horrors,” N’Aissita, the psychology student who wrote about knifing Mila, demurred.

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

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