Tunis - Three European women went on trial in Tunis on
Wednesday for holding a topless anti-Islamist protest, and their French lawyer
said he was confident about the outcome, despite the risk of jail sentences.
Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern from France and
Josephine Markmann from Germany arrived in court around 09:30 GMT wearing the
traditional Tunisian veil, or safsari.
A few dozen people had gathered outside the courthouse and
shouted abuse at one of the women's Tunisian lawyers.
"How can you defend those women?" one of the
people shouted. "You are not Tunisian; you are not Muslim; you don't have
a wife or daughter."
Anouar Ouled Ali, a lawyer who has defended hardline
Salafists prosecuted for acts of violence, said he would ask if groups angered
by the topless protest could participate in the trial as civil parties.
But Patrick Klugman, who came to Tunis to represent the
activists from the radical women's group Femen, said he was optimistic about
the trial, calling it "a good sign" that he had been allowed to speak
Klugman said the prosecution had decided on a charge of
debauchery rather than an attack on public morals, adding that 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
But the women still face a possible six-month prison
sentenced if convicted.
Klugman said he had come to defend "the freedom of
expression of women, of the Femen activists and their message."
"We will ask that these Femen activists are listened to
instead of looked at," he added.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the case in socially
conservative Tunisia, which is ruled by an Islamist party and where hardline
Salafists are increasingly assertive, a Ukrainian activist who had come to
support the women was expelled from the country on the eve of the trial.
The "sextremist" movement said the expulsion,
which authorities have not confirmed, was a worrying precedent.
"It's a signal that the court will not base its
judgement on the law but that its decision will be political," Femen's
leader in Paris, Inna Shevchenko, told AFP by telephone.
The three women staged the group's first topless protest in
the Arab world, outside the main courthouse in Tunis on May 29.
They were demonstrating in support of Amina Sboui, a
Tunisian activist arrested after painting the word "Femen" on a wall
near a cemetery in the religious city of Kairouan, in an act of protest against
Sboui is also due to appear before an investigating judge on
Wednesday. She 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 edition of the proposed new constitution, drafted
in April, states that "all male and female citizens have the same rights
and duties" and "guarantees equal opportunity to men and women."
This formula, which was negotiated after Ennahda's failed
attempt last year to introduce the concept of gender "complementarity",
appears for now to have won a consensus.