Middle East

Tunisia mulls further charges for Femen activist

Police officers detain an activist from the women's rights group FEMEN during a protest against the arrest of their Tunisian member named Amina, in front of Tunisia's Ministry of Justice in Tunis May 29, 2013. REUTERS/Anis Mili

KAIROUAN, Tunisia: Prosecutors on Thursday considered bringing more charges against a Tunisian member of the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, as hundreds of protesters shouted slogans against her outside her trial in the religious center of Kairouan.

Amina Sboui, who was long known by her pseudonym Tyler, appeared in court smiling and enveloped in a white robe. She was questioned by the judge over her possession of pepper spray, the basis of the charge against her of carrying an incendiary object.

The comparatively minor accusation, however, may have two more serious charges added, including desecrating a cemetery and offending public decency, according to defense lawyer Mokhtar Jannene, who said they are now being considered by prosecutors.

Outside the court some 200 protesters, many religious conservatives, chanted slogans against Sboui, accusing her of attacking the city and insulting Islam. They also shouted insults at the defense lawyers and accused them of "sullying" the image of the city, a center for religious pilgrimage and home of Tunisia's holiest mosque.

Sboui scandalized Tunisia in March by posting online photos of herself topless with the slogan "my body is my own" written on her torso.

She went into hiding because of death threats but re-emerged May 19 in Kairouan, where she scrawled "Femen" on a cemetery wall near the city's main mosque. Sboui was detained by police as an angry mob gathered around her. On the same day, police stopped a group of ultraconservative Muslims from holding their annual conference, resulting in clashes and tear gas - heightening the tensions over the Sboui case.

In court, her lawyers argued that the 1894 statute on "incendiary objects" should not apply to her can of pepper spray. That charge carries a potential penalty of six months in prison.

She told the judge that she had been given the pepper spray by a foreign journalist for her own protection and had been carrying it for the last two months. The judge adjourned the session to deliberate on the charge.

The other two charges, if brought forward, carry longer sentences of up to two years in prison.

Sboui's father was present in court and expressed his support for his daughter.

"I am proud of my daughter who has honored the rights of women," Mounir Sboui told The Associated Press. "Maybe her acts were rash, but this is her way of expressing these ideas."

The case is the latest flashpoint in the battle over Tunisia's identity after the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in January 2011 saw the rise of ultraconservative Islamists known as salafis pushing for greater piety.

The case attracted attention in Europe and three members of Femen, two French and a German, demonstrated topless in front of Tunis' court building Wednesday, calling for Sboui's release. They were arrested and remain in custody. They are set to appear before a judge on Friday, when they may be charged.

 

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