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 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.
They were charged with public indecency, offending public morals and threatening public order for the May 29 protest. Court registrar Habib Derbal did not specify which charges they were sentenced for.
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.
Defense lawyer Souhabi 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. "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."
The Femen activists were calling for the release of Sboui, a Tunisian member of Femen who scandalized the country by posting topless photos of herself in a women's rights protest in March. She later attempted another protest May 19 in the religious center of Kairouan.
She has already been convicted of carrying pepper spray and assessed a small fine. An investigating judge in Kairouan is considering further charges.
Long a favored tourist destination for Europeans, Tunisians overthrew their 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.
In the course of Wednesday's session, defense 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."