France is trying more than a dozen teenagers in a new court set up in January specifically to hear cases concerning alleged online abuse and discrimination.
If convicted in the landmark two-day trial, the thirteen young people could be given suspended prison sentences of up to three years.
The defendants are from a range of social and religious backgrounds. Charges levied against them include online harassment, making online death threats, and making online threats of rape.
Some of the accused teenagers apologized for the comments they sent out into the digital world. Others denied being guilty of any crime.
One defendant said his intentions when posting online had been to make people laugh and to attract more followers on social media.
The trial is focused on comments made online two years ago by a then 16-year-old girl who has been identified publicly only by her first name, Mila.
Atheist Mila, who testified to the court, “I don’t like any religion,” used her Instagram and TikTok accounts to criticize Islam and the Quran. In France, freedom of expression is considered a fundamental right and blasphemy is not a crime.
Mila subsequently received more than 100,000 threatening messages, including death threats and rape threats, according to her lawyer, Richard Malka. She was also sent misogynist abuse and received hateful messages about her sexuality.
The now 18-year-old Mila had to leave two schools over the abuse. She told the court she feels like she’s been “condemned to death” and cannot see a future for herself.
Out of the thousands of abusive messages and comments, French police tracked down the 13 defendants currently on trial.
One 22-year-old defendant identified only by his first name, Enzo, apologized to Mila in court for tweeting “you deserve to have your throat slit,” followed by a sexist epithet.
Another, known as Manfred, said he was “pretending to be a stalker to make people laugh” when he threatened to turn Mila into the next Samuel Paty. Paty was a teacher who was beheaded outside Paris in October after showing a class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
“When I posted the tweet, I wasn’t thinking,” testified another defendant, 21-year-old university student Lauren, who tweeted about Mila: “Have her skull crushed, please.”