PARIS (AP) — A French juvenile court on Friday convicted six teenagers for their roles in the 2020 beheading of a teacher by an Islamic extremist, an attack that shocked the country and shone a light on the real-world dangers of online hate speech.
Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher, was killed near his school after showing his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a debate on free expression. Attacker Abdoullakh Anzorov, a young Chechen who had become radicalized, was killed by police.
The court found five of the defendants, who were 14 and 15 at the time of the attack, guilty of involvement in staking out the teacher and identifying him for the attacker. The sixth defendant, 13 at the time, was found guilty of lying about the classroom debate in comments that aggravated online anger against the teacher.
After the ruling, the six defendants left the courtroom without speaking. Some had their heads down as they listened to the verdict. One appeared to wipe tears.
The teenagers — all students at Paty’s school — acknowledged wrongdoing, and testified that they didn’t know the teacher would be killed.
One was given a six-month prison term but allowed to serve under house arrest with an electronic bracelet. The others were given special suspended sentences of between two and three years requiring them to stay in school or jobs. The sentences included special educative follow-up measures that also involved their families.
Lawyers for Paty’s family decried the sentences as too lenient. Lawyers for the teenagers expressed relief.
Paty’s name was disclosed on social media after the class debate, during which he showed caricatures of Islam's prophet published by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The publication had triggered a deadly extremist massacre in the Charlie Hebdo newsroom in 2015.
The cartoon images deeply offended many Muslims in France and around the world, who see them as sacrilegious. But Paty's killing reinforced the French state’s commitment to freedom of expression, and its firm attachment to secularism in public life — and especially in schools.
The five who identified Paty to the attacker were convicted of involvement in a group preparing aggravated violence.
The sixth defendant wrongly claimed Paty had asked Muslim students to leave the classroom before he showed the class the cartoons, and said the teacher punished her for accusing him of anti-Muslim sentiment. In fact, she was not in the classroom that day, and later told investigators she had lied. She was convicted of making false allegations.
The girl’s father shared the lies in an online video that called for mobilization against the teacher. Now incarcerated, her father and a radical Islamic activist who helped disseminate virulent messages against Paty are among eight adults who will face a separate trial for adults suspected of involvement in the killing, expected late next year.
The girl's lawyer Mbeko Tebula said she ‘’doesn’t forgive herself for this lie.’’
‘’She didn’t imagine it would … turn into so much horror,’’ he said. ‘’She was 13.’’
“She will try to move forward,” he said. "She will try to rebuild herself as a woman. To live with this permanent guilt, which will not pass through her but will inhabit her.’’
Lawyer Virginie Le Roy, representing Paty’s family, had tears in her eyes as she described her anger that the punishment was not tougher.
‘’Yes, I am emotional. I am emotional for this family, also for the memory of Samuel. A man decapitated in the street is not nothing. We are in France. This was in 2020,’’ she said. The sentences are "a bad signal to the family of Samuel, a bad signal to the students, and a bad signal to teachers.’’
Teachers at the school and Paty's relatives were in the courtroom along with some of the defendants’ parents. Family members of the teenagers comforted each other afterward, some looking depleted or resigned. They refused to speak to reporters.
The media are not allowed to disclose the defendants' identities, according to French law regarding minors.
The proceedings come weeks after a teacher was fatally stabbed in northern France in October in a school attack by a former student suspected of Islamic radicalization. Another shock hit France last Saturday, when a man with a history of Islamic radicalism and mental illness fatally stabbed a 23-year-old German-Filipino tourist near the Eiffel Tower.
Both killings occurred in a context of global tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, which led French authorities to deploy 7,000 additional soldiers across the country to bolster security and vigilance.
Angela Charlton, The Associated Press