Little sympathy as topless protesters face Tunis trial

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While some Tunisians believe Femen activist Amina Sboui is being harshly treated for her anti-Islamist protest, there is little public sympathy for three European women who bared their breasts in support of her.

The three women, two French and one German, face jail terms of up to a year when they go on trial in Tunis on Wednesday, although their lawyer is confident of a lighter sentence.

They are charged with public indecency after staging a topless protest last week outside the main courthouse in Tunis in support of Sboui, who was arrested after painting the word “Femen” on a wall near a cemetery in an act of protest against hardline Islamists.

Also Wednesday, Sboui, a young Tunisian with the same “sextremist” Femen movement as the Europeans, is to appear before an investigating judge and faces possible charges of indecency and desecrating a cemetery.

Sboui, who has been held in detention since May 19, faces between six months and two years in jail, although the judge has indicated that she could be accused of acting as part of an organised gang and therefore attract a heavier sentence.

But while the ruling Islamist party Ennahda is often accused by its secular opponents of seeking to Islamise society, the May 29 topless protest -- the first in the Arab world -- did nothing to win the opposition’s support in socially conservative Tunisia, or renew the debate about women’s rights.

Even if Tunisia’s secular and feminist groups sympathise with the young Tunisian’s plight, few of them are rushing to support her European comrades.

“What has happened to Amina, this ruthlessness, is not justified. She does not in any way represent a threat to national security,” said Nadia Chaabane, MP for the secular centre-left party Al-Massar.

“But I don’t understand the Femen reaction, which has aggravated her situation,” she added.

“It is a sterile and pointless provocation. This incident distracts us from the most serious problems we face today, the socio-economic problems, the drafting of the constitution, the violence, etc. Frankly, the Femen (demands) are the last thing I’m worried about.”

The press has also chafed at their protest.

“Crudely provoking... is not an ideal way to challenge,” Tunisian daily Le Temps said on Sunday.

The three young women were identified by the Femen movement in Paris as Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern, both French, and Josephine Markmann from Germany.

France said it hopes the Tunis court will not be too harsh.

“The Tunisian judiciary is independent, but in the end I still hope it will be lenient,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Souheib Bahri, one of the lawyers of the three women, who are being held in the Manouba prison in a suburb of the capital, is confident about the outcome of the trial.

“I expect a light sentence,” he told AFP.

He said his clients had staged their controversial protest to draw attention to the plight of Sboui, who before her arrest had received threats from Islamists for having published topless pictures of herself on the Internet in March.

“They say: ‘We have done this to attract international attention, because Amina had no support in Tunisia’,” he said.

Ennahda has yet to comment on the Femen campaign even though it was the group’s first target.

Last weekend in Canada, a topless activist interrupted a speech by Hamadi Jebali, former prime minister and secretary general of the party, shouting “Free Amina!”

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.”

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