By Kaouther Larbi (AFP) – A Tunisian judge on Thursday announced fresh charges against a young Tunisian woman with the topless protest group Femen, as three Europeans began a second night in custody after baring their breasts.
Amina Sboui, better known by her pseudonym Tyler, was remanded in custody and would be charged with indecency and desecrating a cemetery, crimes punishable by up to two years in jail, the presiding judge told AFP.
At the next hearing, set for June 5, she will be charged under the “criminal conspiracy” section of the penal code, where relevant articles carry possible jail terms of up to 12 years, the judge added.
Sboui had gone on trial for illegal possession of pepper spray in Tunisia’s religious capital of Kairouan, where she was arrested earlier this month after painting the word “Femen” on a wall near a cemetery.
She was fined 300 dinars (150 euros) for the pepper spray charge, court officials said.
Separately, the justice ministry said three European members of Femen arrested on Wednesday for baring their breasts outside the central court in Tunis to demand Sboui’s release will remain in custody.
“They will remain in detention until they are brought to trial,” ministry spokesman Adel Riahi said of the two French women and one German, without specifying what charges they would face.
The protest by the European activists was the first of its kind in the Arab world and shocked many in socially conservative Tunisia, where Muslim extremists have become increasingly assertive since the 2011 revolution.
Their three women’s lawyer, Souheib Bahri, said the charges against them would be known on Friday.
Sboui sparked a scandal in March — and also a wave of international support — after posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook, incurring the wrath of radical Islamists.
Her mother, whom the young woman accused of holding her in captivity, later described her daughter as someone who suffers from chronic depression and has suicidal tendencies.
But before Thursday’s trial, Sboui’s father Mounir said he was “proud” of his daughter for her ideological commitment, while also describing her acts as excessive.
“I am proud of my daughter. This case is getting more and more politicised. Her actions were excessive but she defends her ideas,” he said.
The Femen movement, founded in Ukraine and now based in Paris, has flourished since 2010, with feminists around the world stripping off in protest at a wide range of issues linked to the mistreatment of women, but also against dictatorship.
Since the revolution that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been rocked by a wave of violence blamed on hardline Islamists who were repressed by the staunchly secular former strongman.
Tunisia has the most liberal laws in the Arab world on women’s rights, and Sboui’s trial has reflected the bristling tensions over the issue in a country now governed by an Islamist-led coalition.
“Amina is an activist, a woman who is just trying to defend herself,” said Henda Hendoud, a Tunisian feminist, adding that it would be “shameful” to see her condemned for her actions.
But members of Tunisia’s main Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia protested angrily outside the court, with their spokesman Seifeddine Rais saying the accused could “go to hell”, and supporters chanting: “The people want the application of Islamic law.”
There was friction inside the courtroom too, where lawyers claiming to represent the residents of Kairouan joined demands for heavier charges to be brought against the accused.
Opposition parties and feminist groups have often accused the ruling Islamist party Ennahda of seeking to roll back women’s rights and of being too lenient on the extremists, although the party has opposed enshrining Islamic sharia law in the constitution.
But a failed attempt last year to introduce the concept of gender “complementarity” rather than equality into the constitution raised serious doubts about the party’s real intentions.
The latest edition of the proposed text, drafted in April, states that “all male and female citizens have the same rights and duties”.