Thirteen people have gone on trial in France after they were charged with online harassment and issuing death threats to a teenage girl who made headlines last year after she was accused of "insulting" Islam. The girl’s lawyer, Richard Malka, said his client, Mila, received messages in which the sender promised to have her butchered. In some cases they sent her photoshopped images of her having been decapitated.
"I cannot believe that these 13 people - who have all been through our education system - do not know that criticising religions is lawful and has nothing to do with racism," Malka said, commenting on the trial.
Lawyers of the defendants have argued that they are unfairly carrying the can for thousands of people, who took advantage of anonymity on social media to make threats online.
Gerard Chemla, a lawyer for one of the accused, said: "My client is totally overwhelmed by this affair. He had a fairly stupid instant reaction, the type that happens every day on Twitter."
If convicted, the 13 defendants, whose ages range from 18 to 30, could face up to two years in prison and a fine of $36,000.
What Did Mila Say?
The incident occurred in 2020 during a livestream on Instagram. Mila reportedly got into an argument with one user, a Muslim man, who called her a "dirty lesbian" (her profile included an LGBT flag). In response, the teenager, who was 16 at the time, said the following:
"The Koran is... full of hate... Islam is a s**t religion. That’s what I think."
She had to quit school and her family was placed under police protection as Mila was inundated with threats. As stated above, her lawyer claims that she is still receiving 30 hate-filled messages a minute, one year after the incident.
As well as these threats, the girl was accused of racism, a claim she dismissed saying her comments have nothing to do with ethnicity as she hates religion in general. Reports say Mila will soon publish a book titled “I’m Paying the Price for Your Freedom”, where she will outline her position.
Her case has become very high-profile as it occurred during a debate about freedom of speech and expression in France. The country follows laïcité principle, which means it is fundamentally a secular state where, among other things, freedom of expression is not allowed to be curbed to protect the feelings of a particular community, as this would undermine the country’s unity.
Last year the country was shaken by the gruesome murder of a French schoolteacher, who was beheaded by a Muslim immigrant after the teacher showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad - a highly controversial thing to do in Islam - in a lesson about freedom of speech.
French authorities, including President Emmanuel Macron, have condemned the murder and voiced support for the teacher and his decision to show caricatures. This caused a wave of indignation among Muslims around the world. Macron has also backed Mila, citing the country’s laïcité principle: "We have the right to blaspheme, to criticise and to caricature religions," the French leader said.