KAIROUAN, Tunisia – The trial for the Tunisian member of the Ukrainian feminist group Femen opened Thursday in the religious center of Kairouan amid protests accusing her of attacking Islam.
Amina Tyler appeared in court smiling and enveloped in a white robe and was questioned by the judge over her possession of pepper spray, the basis of the charge of carrying an incendiary object.
Outside some 200 protesters, many religious conservatives, chanted slogans against Tyler, 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.
Tyler 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 reemerged May 19 in Kairouan where she scrawled "Femen" on a wall near the city's main mosque, the same day police stopped a group of ultraconservative Muslims from holding their annual conference, resulting in clashes and tear gas.
Tyler was detained by police as an angry mob gathered.
Her lawyers argue that the 1894 statute should not apply to her can of pepper spray.
Tyler 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.
Lawyers saying they represented the city petitioned the judge that Tyler be given the more serious charge of threatening the security of the city, but their request was turned down.
Tyler'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."
Tyler's 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 Tyler's release. They were arrested and remained in custody.