PARIS – Five young men, one of whom is studying law with the hopes of becoming a police commissioner or a judge, have made their first court appearance over tweets that prosecutors say incited violence against Asians in France, in what anti-racism activists are calling a precedent-setting case.
For the Association of Young Chinese in France, SOS Racisme, and four other anti-racism groups who lodged the complaint, the case is meant to send a message that people can no longer hide behind anonymous social media accounts to post racist, hate-filled messages.
The accused, none of whom deny writing the tweets in question, are charged with “inciting public provocation to carry out a physical attack of a racist nature” and spreading “public insults towards a group of people because of their origin.”
“We want the authors of these kinds of tweets to know that they can be brought to justice and convicted, that these kinds of messages are not harmless and that they understand this reality,” lawyer Soc Lam told reporters at the Paris courthouse.
The tweets posted by the young men, aged between 19-25, called for violent attacks against Chinese people in France, following a national COVID lockdown announced by President Emmanuel Macron last October.
The tweets, included in court documents seen by VICE World News, feature messages such as:
“Put me in a cage with a Chinese I’ll have fun with them. I want to watch all their hope fade from their eyes.”
“I don't give a shit I hate China, they should be wiped off the map, these motherf****** all the viruses come from this shitty country.”
Along with the five college students, another four minors are being prosecuted in a separate hearing. Between the nine accused, they are responsible for sending about a dozen racist and hateful tweets.
Just hours after the posts were published, Jean (who asked to remain anonymous), was out walking his dog at 1AM. in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, the city’s main Chinatown, when a man wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “security” and smelling of alcohol launched at him.
“He came towards me yelling ‘you dirty Chinese, dirty ch***, because of you we’re under lockdown’,” Jean told reporters at the Paris courthouse where he was due to testify.
The attacker twisted his right arm, dislocating it out of his shoulder.
The day after Macron’s lockdown announcement and the offensive tweets, another male Asian student was assaulted in an unprovoked attack while playing table tennis at one of the many city-installed tables. His attackers called him “dirty Chinese” and doused him in pepper spray.
The tweets were posted while France was already under a climate of fear and apprehension: Just 12 days earlier, school teacher Samuel Paty had been beheaded following a viral online campaign that accused him of Islamophobia.
In a devastating twist to the story that broke two weeks ago, it was revealed that the 13-year-old teenage girl who had set off the chain of events by telling her father that Paty had asked Muslim students to leave the classroom while he showed photos of the Prophet Mohammed, had lied. Though Paty did invite his Muslim students to close their eyes while he showed Charlie Hebdo covers depicting caricatures of the Prophet for his lesson on free speech, the girl had already been suspended for absenteeism and was not in class that day. She had told her father she was suspended for refusing to leave the room. Her father, in turn, filed a formal complaint denouncing the teacher and launched an aggressive online campaign that went viral, reaching Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov who carried out the gruesome attack. He had no ties to the teacher or the family.
Paty’s murder, and the online campaign that was carried out against him, led swiftly to the creation of a department specialised in fighting online hate crimes which launched formally in January. Wednesday’s proceedings mark the unit’s first court case, which activists point out is a remarkably short turnaround.
“Today marks an historic advancement for anti-Asian racism as this is the inaugural case for the online hate division,” said Laetitia Chhiv, spokesperson for the Association of Young Chinese in France. “It’s a huge advancement for us, as we’ve been fighting for years just to have the simple recognition that anti-Asian racism exists.”
The court appearance also comes following the killings of eight people including six Asian women in a shooting rampage by a white man in Atlanta last week. Asian seniors likewise continue to be targeted in unprovoked, race-related attacks across the US.
“We’re worried that what’s happening in the US could arrive here,” Chhiv said. “There’s something in the atmosphere, forcing all Asians to be vigilant.”
Meanwhile, a lawyer for one of the defendants described the accused as students who come mostly from good families, but who made bad decisions by sending “idiotic tweets.” One is studying law at the prestigious Sciences Po school in Paris; others engineering and computer programming.
“They’re five men who are well integrated in society, with clean records, who just lost control,” said Olivier Kuhn-Massot. He said his client regrets his actions.
The case is under advisement and the court is expected to make its final decision in late May.