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'Star Wars Kid' cuts a deal with his tormentors

As Ghyslain Raza recalled, whenever he walked by his high school's common areas, other students would jump on tables and chant, "Star Wars Kid! Star Wars Kid!"

There would be a commotion as they shouted and poked at him, trying to get a reaction. "It was simply unbearable," he said.

An otherwise ordinary teen in this Quebec small town, Mr. Raza had become a worldwide object of ridicule when schoolmates put on the Internet a video of him clumsily pretending to be a Star Wars character.

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Three years later, Mr. Raza and his parents this week reached an out-of-court settlement with the families of three former schoolmates they had sued for $351,000 in damages.

The settlement annuls a civil trial set to begin on Monday that would have scrutinized one of the world's first and most-publicized cases of cyber-bullying.

However, documents filed in the case at the Trois-Rivières courthouse give new details about how a mean-spirited high-school prank turned into a global Internet cause célèbre.

Specifics of the settlement remain confidential.

Lawyers for the three schoolmates had suffered a setback after they were not allowed to introduce as evidence a transcript of a phone conversation Mr. Raza had with a blogger, Jishnu Mukerji.

The blogger had posted a transcript of the exchange on the Internet.

Conducted a month after the video and parodies of it began circulating, the conversation has Mr. Raza calling the spoofs "interesting" but not expressing much distress.

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However, a judge rejected a bid to table a transcript of the chat and Mr. Mukerji was not available to testify.

The documents include transcripts of examinations under oath of Mr. Raza and of three students accused of circulating the video, Michaël Caron, Jérôme Laflamme and Jean-Michel Rheault.

(Proceedings against a fourth, François Labarre, were dropped after Mr. Raza acknowledged that the allegations against that student were based on hearsay.)

In the transcripts, Mr. Raza said the experience left him unable to attend school.

"It was simply unbearable, totally. It was impossible to attend class," Mr. Raza said.

He said the situation left him feeling drained of energy, and that he let himself go and no longer lifted weights to keep fit.

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He said he was diagnosed with depression by a pedopsychiatrist at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital and his lawyers, in their fillings, said they wanted to have a psychiatrist and a psychologist testify, along with producing his medical file.

Under questioning, Mr. Laflamme and Mr. Rheault conceded their role in spreading a video that Mr. Raza, then 15, had made of himself and left on a shelf in the school TV studio.

Mr. Laflamme said he discovered the tape in April of 2003, when he took school equipment to film a varsity football game.

He showed the tape to Mr. Rheault, who made a copy of it.

"I thought it'd be an interesting prank . . . I wanted Ghyslain to know what I knew of him, what I had seen," Mr. Laflamme said.

"All I did was take the cassette, digitize it on the studio computer to pull a joke on Ghyslain. After that, I had nothing to do with it," Mr. Rheault said he later told the school principal after the controversy erupted.

He said that when a school counsellor confronted him about Mr. Raza's misfortunes, he replied, "It's no fun what happened here, but that's the problem with the Internet. Things travel fast."

Mr. Caron, who says he didn't even know the two other pranksters, said in examination that as the tape was being e-mailed among students, he created a website and posted the video on it.

According to court filings, the video first appeared on the Internet on the evening of April 14, 2003.

About a month later, one U.S. Web blog that had posted the video said it had been downloaded 1.1 million times already.

Mr. Raza's lawyer said in a court filing that the video was so widely circulated that one Internet site solely dedicated to the two-minute clip recorded 76 million visits by October, 2004.

Mr. Raza conceded in his examination that he didn't express much anguish when he spoke to Mr. Mukerji in May of 2003 about his sudden fame.

He said he was cautious because "everything I said was textually reported on the Internet. I signalled in more or less subtle fashion my unhappiness."

Mr. Raza -- who appears on the video as a chubby, ungainly young man -- recalled how other students got on tables and chanted taunts at him. "There was about 100 people in those halls. It was total chaos . . . Any opportunity was good enough to shout 'Star Wars!' "

He said in one class, where a document was shown through a projector, other students scrolled the text, mimicking the opening of the movie, as they sang the Star Wars theme.

And whenever he was in a public place, he said, strangers would call to him.

"Hey! It's Ghyslain Raza! Star Wars Kid, hey!"

He left the school and eventually, got a private tutor.

No one would comment yesterday about the settlement, including whether it included monetary compensation.

However, previous proceedings in the case had included discussions about whether the families of the three defendants had liability insurance.

The families of the three defendants have varying financial situations, court documents suggest. Mr. Caron's court filings include a letter from an insurer refusing to provide liability insurance coverage, whereas Mr. Laflamme says in his examination that his father had savings of $500,000 from an inheritance.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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