A bare-breasted Femen activist demonstrates in Tunis, on May 29, 2013
A bare-breasted Femen activist demonstrates in Tunis, on May 29, 2013. Three European women have gone on trial in Tunis for holding a topless anti-Islamist protest, and their French lawyer said he was confident about the outcome, despite the risk of jail sentences. © Fethi Belaid - AFP/File
A bare-breasted Femen activist demonstrates in Tunis, on May 29, 2013
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AFP
Last updated: June 5, 2013

European women go on trial for topless Tunis protest

A Tunisian court on Wednesday adjourned to next week the trial of three European women for holding a topless anti-Islamist protest and rejected their request for bail, their lawyers said.

"The trial has been adjourned to June 12. The bail request for the three Femen activists was refused," defence lawyer Souheib Bahri told AFP.

The judge must decide at the next hearing on whether to allow several Islamist groups angered by the topless protest to participate in the trial as a civil party.

French lawyer Patrick Klugman, who had come from Paris to represent the three members of the radical women's protest group Femen, condemned the adjournment.

"Without giving a word to the Femen activists, the court has right from the beginning listened to the Salafist associations, who are not even a part of this trial," Klugman said.

"We came from Paris to observe this trial. The trial has not taken place and justice has not been done, as the (accused) have not been freed and have not even been listened to," he added.

Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern from France, and Josephine Markmann from Germany arrived in court at around 0930 GMT wearing the traditional Tunisian headscarf, or safsari.

They were arrested on May 29 after baring their breasts outside the main courthouse in the capital in support of Amina Sboui, a Tunisian activist with the same "sextremist" group who had been arrested 10 days earlier.

They risk six months in prison.

Before the trial began, a few dozen people gathered outside the courthouse and shouted abuse at one of the women's Tunisian lawyers.

"How can you defend those women?" one of them shouted. "You are not Tunisian; you are not Muslim; you don't have a wife or daughter."

Klugman had earlier expressed confidence that the accused would avoid prison, saying the prosecution had decided on a charge of debauchery rather than an attack on public morals.

He said there were no material facts or evidence of intent to back up the charge.

"Their bodies were not exhibited to seduce but to convey a political message... which is different than debauchery," he told AFP.

Reflecting the sensitivity of the case in socially conservative Tunisia, which is ruled by a coalition government led by a moderate Islamist party and where hardline Salafists are increasingly assertive, Ukrainian activist Alexandra Shevchenko who had come to support the women was expelled on the eve of the trial.

The interior ministry said on Wednesday that two more Femen activists -- another Ukrainian and a Belarussian -- had also been kicked out of the country, but the group denied they were members.

"It's a very clear provocation. Only Alexandra was representing Femen in Tunisia, there was no one else in the country, which shows how much the authorities fear Femen," said the movement's leader in Paris, Inna Shevchenko.

Several Femen activists on Wednesday stripped off and performed Muslim prayers outside the Tunisian embassy in the French capital.

The topless protest last week in Tunis -- Femen's first in the Arab world -- was done in support of Sboui, arrested for painting the word "Femen" on a wall near a cemetery in city of Kairouan last month.

Sboui, 18, had been protesting against a planned gathering of radical Salafists in the historic Muslim city south of Tunis.

She was questioned by an investigating judge on Wednesday at the Kairouan court, where she arrived handcuffed before being returned to prison early in the afternoon, with no information emerging from the closed hearing.

The young activist faces possible charges of indecency and desecrating a cemetery.

Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that heads Tunisia's coalition government, has yet to comment on the Femen campaign even though it was the group's first target.

Since the 1950s, Tunisia has had the most liberal laws in the Arab world on women's rights, and the Islamists are often forced to defend themselves against the charge of wanting to roll back those rights.

The latest text of a draft constitution, released in April, states that "all male and female citizens have the same rights and duties" and "guarantees equal opportunity to men and women."

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