TUNIS, Tunisia - A Tunisian court on Wednesday convicted three European feminist activists who staged a topless courthouse protest last month, sentencing them to four months and a day in prison, a court official said. The defence called the sentence far too harsh.
The two French and a German member of the Ukrainian feminist group Femen maintained during the trial that there was nothing sexual or offensive about their protest and that it was only to support their imprisoned Tunisian colleague. A group leader has pledged further topless protests in Tunisia and the Middle East.
The three women were convicted of public indecency, offending public morals and threatening public order after they demonstrated topless in front of the court building on May 29, said court registrar Habib Derbal.
The protest was the first of its kind in the Middle East for Femen, which has used nudity to push for greater rights for women across Europe. During the trial, the women wore traditional white Tunisian cloaks, but their heads were uncovered.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "since we were hoping for a degree of clemency, we could only regret the severity of the penalty."
Defence lawyer Souhaib Bahri expressed shock, questioning why trials against suspects in more serious crimes seem to result in lighter sentences. On May 28, a Tunisian court gave 20 suspects in a Sept. 14 mob attack on the U.S. embassy suspended sentences, prompting the U.S. to respond that it was "deeply troubled" by the decision. Four demonstrators died in the attack sparked by anger over an American film considered insulting to Islam.
"The sentence is very severe and not proportional to the actions of the women," Bahri said, adding that the sentence would be appealed. "When we think of the trial for those suspected of the attack on the U.S. embassy where there was dead and major property damage and the defendants received just suspended sentences, we have to ask if there hasn't been a failure of justice."
An Islamist lawyer, who was part of a group of religious associations that had attempted to join the case as aggrieved parties, expressed satisfaction at the verdict.
"This was the least penalty that could have been given to the three defendants," said Anwar Ouled Ali. "I hope this is a lesson to Femen and anyone else who seeks to attack the values of Islam."
Inna Shevchenko, a leading member of the group based in Paris, said the verdict will have the opposite effect.
"If they think they can stop women's liberation by throwing us in jail, this is one of the biggest reasons to come back to Tunisia with more topless demonstrations and go to other Muslim countries," she told The Associated Press by telephone. "I think this decision shows in which direction Tunisia is moving, we can definitely say now Tunisia is an Islamic state that throws women in jail for peaceful protest."
On the opening day of the trial June 5, three other Femen activists were discovered by authorities and deported on suspicions they planned another protest.
Long a favoured tourist destination for Europeans, Tunisians overthrew their secular dictator in 2011, kicking off uprisings across the region. In the ensuing years, however, there has been a rise in conservative Islamist movements at odds with the country's longstanding image as secular and progressive - especially in regard to women's rights.
The Femen activists were calling for the release of Sboui, a Tunisian member of Femen who scandalized the country in March by posting topless photos of herself as a protest for women's rights. She later attempted another protest May 19 in the religious centre of Kairouan, where she was arrested.
"We came to Tunisia to express our support for Amina who is a symbol during this political phase that Tunisia is going through," defendant Pauline Hilliers from France said through an interpreter during the trial. "My passion is politics and not inciting debauchery."
Sboui has already been convicted of carrying pepper spray and assessed a small fine. An investigating judge in Kairouan is considering more serious charges that could result in jail time.
Post-uprising elections brought to power a moderate Islamist party that many say has been too lenient with ultraconservative groups seeking to instil greater piety in this country of 10 million.
During Wednesday's session, defence lawyer Leila Ben Debba pushed for a lenient sentence for the three women.
"The whole world is watching Tunisian justice," she said to the chief judge. "Tunisia is going through a period of transition and we have to give Tunisia an image of a tolerant country."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.