Earlier this week, a 24-year-old man from Marseilles, Farid Ghilas, was sentenced to a year in prison for the bizarre act of throwing a stray kitten into a block of flats. The incident had been videoed and was posted online, prompting outrage. It was clearly a stupid thing to do, but the reaction says much about society’s attitudes to humans and animals today.
After the video was posted, there was a storm of protest on social media. A petition was started, demanding ‘exemplary punishment’ for Ghilas, and signed by 260,000 people; 200 animal-rights activists picketed the courthouse on the day of the hearing. Ghilas, of north-African descent, was subject to a torrent of racist abuse online. The prosecutor told the court: ‘He acted with a singular perversity and sadism that has shocked the entire planet.’ Ghilas told the court: ‘We were walking in the street. I saw the cat, he came towards me and I did it without thinking. I don’t know whose idea it was to film it’, adding that he ‘regretted’ the act. The kitten in question, now christened ‘Oscar’, seems to have survived the incident with nothing worse than a broken leg.
The real outrage is not Ghilas’ daft act, but the sentence: 12 months in prison, not even suspended, the full term. No option of doing a couple of weeks’ community service cleaning out cat mess in an animal-rescue centre, just a straight prison term. It also reveals a serious contradiction in French law: Article 528 of the Civil Code considers animals to be like furniture, but the Rural Code recognises that an animal is a ‘sentient being’. Imagine what the other inmates in gang-ridden Marseilles will say and do when they ask him what he’s doing time for and he replies that he broke a kitten’s paw.
This is an abuse of the penal system. If it hands out one year for breaking a kitten’s paw and it becomes a precedent, then how many years do you give to someone who commits premeditated murder of a person? Three thousand years? The mercury just goes off the barometer. The scale loses meaning. Our bearings are lost. The compass is no longer magnetised.
Julian Lagnado is a writer living in France.