A French court on Wednesday found four students guilty of inciting racial hatred online by posting anti-Asian tweets blaming Chinese people for the spread of coronavirus.
The four, aged between 19 and 24 and without criminal records, were sentenced to two days of civic education by the Paris criminal court, and ordered to pay 250 euros ($300) to each of the seven plaintiffs and up to 1,000 euros in fines.
A fifth accused student was found not guilty.
The students posted the tweets after President Emmanuel Macron announced a second round of strict stay-at-home rules on October 29.
The Covid-19 virus originated in China and there have been concerns throughout Western countries about anti-Asian sentiments.
“Put me in a cage with a Chinese, I want to have fun with him, break him, I want to see all hope in his eyes fade before me,” one of the students tweeted in postings that were read out in court at the start of the trial in March.
In response, the social media hashtags “#IAmNotAVirus” (#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus) and “#StopTheVirusOfHatred” (#StopAuVirusDeLaHaine) emerged, and there were protests outside the courtroom.
The four were found guilty of “public incitement, not followed by acts, to commit a voluntary offence against the integrity of a person because of their origins”, the verdict read.
Soc Lam, a lawyer for the Association of Young Chinese People in France, said the ruling was a welcome sign the courts were taking online hate speech seriously.
But he also called the students’ punishment “extremely symbolic and light” which he said might “encourage some people to continue”.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to “new dimensions of anti-Asian racism,” according to study last year by France’s Institute of National Demographic Studies (INED). Critics have accused police of neglecting to address threats against France’s Chinese community.