The ‘Affaire Mila’ sparked outrage and renewed calls to uphold free-speech rights after the 16-year-old was subjected to a torrent of abuse on social media after her expletive-laden videos went viral last year.
“The Koran is filled with nothing but hate, Islam is a shitty religion,” Mila said in the first post on Instagram in January 2020.
A second one in November, this time on TikTok, came after the jihadist killing of high school teacher Samuel Paty over his showing of controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohamed to students.
The reactions were swift and virulent.
“You deserve to have your throat cut,” read one, while another warned “I’m going to do you like Samuel Paty”.
Mila had to be placed under police protection along with her family in Villefontaine, a town outside Lyon in southeast France, and was forced to change schools.
Even President Emmanuel Macron came to her defence, saying that “the law is clear. We have the right to blaspheme, to criticise and to caricature religions.”
Investigators eventually identified thirteen people from several French regions aged 18 to 30, and charged them with online harassment, with some also accused of threatening death or other criminal acts.
“This is a trial against the digital terror that unleashes sexist, homophobic and intolerant mobs against a teenager,” Mila’s lawyer Richard Malka told AFP ahead of the trial, which opens on Thursday afternoon.
“This digital lynching must be punished,” he said.
But defence lawyers have argued that the 13 on trial are unfairly taking the rap as scapegoats for thousands of people taking advantage of the anonymity offered by social media platforms.
“My client is totally overwhelmed by this affair,” said Gerard Chemla, a lawyer for one of the accused. “He had a fairly stupid instant reaction, the type that happens every day on Twitter.”
The accused face up to two years in prison and fines of €30,000 for online harassment.
A conviction of death threats carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison – two people previously convicted of death threats against Mila have received prison terms.
Mila, now 18, is to publish a book this month recounting her experience, titled “I’m paying the price for your freedom.”