Six teenagers went on trial in Paris on Monday over accusations they were connected to the murder of Samuel Paty, a history teacher whose beheading by an Islamist extremist in 2020 inflicted lasting trauma on France.
The defendants, former middle-school students at the school where Mr. 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 named the defendants and they are being tried behind closed doors at a criminal court for minors in Paris. They face up to two and a half years in prison.
A separate trial for eight adults who have been charged in the case is expected to be held next year.
Mr. 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 Oct. 16, 2020, near the school where he worked in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a northwestern suburb of Paris. The assailant, Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Russian of Chechen descent, was shot and killed by the police later that same day.
Mr. 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 like Mr. Paty are seen as the first line of defense of a public, secular school system that many fear is increasingly under threat from Islamic extremism.
Just last month, almost three years to the day after Mr. Paty’s murder, 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 before going on a stabbing spree in which he also injured three other people.
The trial that started on Monday will run until Dec. 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 ages 14 to 15 at the time of the killing, of helping Mr. Anzorov identify and track Mr. Paty, including by keeping watch outside their school, by telling Mr. 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.
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 Mr. Anzorov intended to kill Mr. Paty. Mr. Anzorov had stalked Mr. Paty’s school the day of the killing and had enlisted the teenagers’ help in exchange for about $330, telling them he wanted to confront the teacher and force him to apologize.
Antoine Ory, a lawyer for one of the teenage defendants, said at the courthouse on Monday 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 Mr. Paty.
Mr. Paty, who taught civics, had shown the students caricatures published by the 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Anzorov, who lived nearly 60 miles away, learned of the controversy, he then set out to kill Mr. Paty. Prosecutors said at the time that he contacted Mr. Chnina repeatedly.
Louis Cailliez, a lawyer for one of Mr. Paty’s sisters, told reporters at the courthouse on 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.”
Mr. Chnina and Abdelhakim Sefrioui, an Islamist activist who filmed online videos calling Mr. 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 organizing a criminal terrorist conspiracy.
Two other adults, friends of Mr. Anzorov who are accused of helping him buy weapons and driving him to the school, have been charged with complicity in the murder.