Three feminist activists from the group Femen have been given jail sentences by a Tunisian court. The court convicted the women for bearing their breasts in public in protest of the arrest of a Tunisian Femen member.
A court in Tunis found three European feminist activists guilty of public indecency, offending public morality and disrupting the peace on Wednesday. Defendants Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern of France, as well as German national Josephine Markmann were sentenced to prison for four months and one day.
Their defense lawyer criticized the court for handing down a hypocritical verdict compared to recent cases involving Islamist extremists in Tunisia.
"The sentence is very severe and not proportional to the actions of the women," said attorney Souhaib Bahri.
"When we think of the trial for those suspected of the attack on the U.S. embassy where there was death and major property damage and the defendants received just suspended sentences, we have to ask if there hasn't been a failure of justice," Bahri added, referring to mob attacks against the US embassy and an American school in Tunis last September. The unrest resulted in the deaths of four people.
The French foreign ministry also expressed its disappointment in the court's decision.
"Since we were hoping for a degree of clemency, we could only regret the severity of the penalty," the French foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Hillier, Stern and Markmann staged a topless protest in front of Tunis' main courthouse on May 29 following the arrest of Tunisian activist Amina Sboui. They were the first Femen activists to stage a protest in the Middle East.
Sboui had caught the public's attention in March when she protested women's rights by posting topless photos of herself online. On May 19, authorities in Kairouan, which lies about 160 kilometers (99 miles) south of Tunis, apprehended her for allegedly painting the word "Femen" on wall near a cemetery.
"We came to Tunisia to express our support for Amina [Sboui] who is a symbol during this political phase that Tunisia is going through," defendant Pauline Hilliers from France said through an interpreter during the trial.
"My passion is politics and not inciting debauchery," Hilliers said.
Femen vows to persevere
Femen group leader, Inna Shevchenko, told reporters that the verdict had only motivated the group to stage more protests in the Middle East.
"If they think they are going to stop feminist activity, Femen activity, by jailing women they're wrong," she told dpa in Paris, where Femen is now based.
"Now we see which way the Arab Spring is turning. They're scared of the liberation of women, which is the first step in the liberation of a country," Shevchenko told the news agency DPA.
Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has seen conservative groups rise to power, while ultraconservative Salafi Muslim groups continue to fight for more influence over social policies.
kms/jm (AFP, AP, dpa)