Teens face trial accused of aiding beheading of teacher Samuel Paty

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Paris: Six teenagers have gone on trial in Paris over accusations they were connected to the killing of Samuel Paty, a history teacher whose beheading by an Islamic extremist in 2020 inflicted lasting trauma on France.

Most of the defendants, former middle-school students at the school where Paty taught, are accused of helping the killer identify and track the teacher, although they are not believed to have known that he intended to kill.

Officials have not publicly identified the defendants, and they are being tried behind closed doors at a criminal court for minors in Paris. They face up to 2½ years in prison.

A memorial portrait of Samuel Paty at a bus stop in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, the Paris suburb where he taught.Credit: Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times

A separate trial for eight adults who have been charged in the case is expected to be held next year.

Paty, 47, had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to a civics class to illustrate free speech and was subsequently beheaded because of the act on October 16, 2020, near the school where he worked in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a north-western suburb of Paris. The assailant, Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Russian of Chechen descent, was shot and killed by police later that day.

Paty’s killing deeply shocked France, where teachers play a crucial role in imparting the French Republic’s values of liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism. Teachers such as Paty are seen as the first line of defence of a public, secular school system that many fear is increasingly under threat from Islamic extremism.

French President Emmanuel Macron leaves after paying his respects by the coffin of slain teacher Samuel Paty in the courtyard of the Sorbonne university in Paris in October 2020.Credit: AP

Last month, almost three years to the day after Paty’s killing, another teacher, Dominique Bernard, 57, who taught French literature, was killed at his school in northern France in ominously similar circumstances. The suspect in that case is a former student at the school, a 20-year-old Russian immigrant who prosecutors say pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group before going on a stabbing spree in which he also injured three other people.

The teenagers’ trial will run until December 8. It is closed to the media, and reporters are legally barred from disclosing the identity of the defendants or from giving accounts of the proceedings.

Prosecutors have accused five of the defendants, who were 14 and 15 at the time of the killing, of helping Anzorov identify and track Paty, including by keeping watch outside their school, by telling Anzorov what he looked like, and by pointing him out as he left school. The teenagers have been charged with criminal conspiracy to prepare a violent assault.

The murder of Samuel Paty sparked outrage in France. Credit: Getty

Lawyers for the defendants have argued that their clients are consumed by guilt over the teacher’s death and that they did not know at the time that Anzorov intended to kill Paty. Anzorov had stalked Paty’s school the day of the killing and had enlisted the teenagers’ help in exchange for about $500, telling them he wanted to confront the teacher and force him to apologise.

Antoine Ory, a lawyer for one of the teenage defendants, said at the courthouse that his client “has been gripped by remorse for the past three years”.

The sixth defendant, a girl who was 13 at the time of the killing, has been charged with making false allegations against Paty.

Paty, who taught civics, had shown the students caricatures published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – itself the target of a massacre in 2015 – to illustrate the right to blasphemy, free speech and freedom of conscience.

Prosecutors have said the girl told her parents that Paty had singled out Muslim students in the classroom, asking them to leave before he showed the caricatures. In reality, the girl had not attended that class and Paty had not ordered Muslim students to exit.

The girl, who had been given a two-day suspension from school for unrelated reasons, told her parents instead that she had been punished for complaining to Paty about the caricatures.

But the girl’s false account, prosecutors have said, set off a tragic chain reaction. Her father, Brahim Chnina, spread the claims on social media. When Anzorov, who lived nearly 100 kilometres away, learned of the controversy, he then set out to kill Paty. Prosecutors said at the time that he contacted Chnina repeatedly.

Louis Cailliez, a lawyer for one of Paty’s sisters, told reporters at the courthouse Monday that he hoped the trial would determine the teenagers’ level of responsibility in what he called “a fatal combination of small cowardice and big lies.”

Chnina and Abdelhakim Sefrioui, an Islamic activist who filmed online videos calling Paty an anti-Muslim “thug” and demanding that he be fired, are among six adults scheduled to face trial at a later date on charges of organising a criminal terrorist conspiracy.

Two other adults, friends of Anzorov who are accused of helping him buy weapons and driving him to the school, have been charged with complicity in the killing.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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