Appeal trial of topless Tunisia protesters adjourned

The appeals trial of three European activists with women's protest group Femen, jailed for baring their breasts in Tunis, was adjourned on Friday, their lawyers said.

The judge scheduled the next hearing for June 26 and rejected a request that the defendants be released on parole, according to Leila Ben Debba and Souhaib Bahri.

The trial was adjourned because the judiciary had failed to allow the 10 days to elapse in which Islamist groups were given the chance to appeal the rejection of their request to participate as a civil party, Bahri said.

"Because the delay only expired today, the judge had no other choice (than to adjourn the trial) to give the associations time to appeal," the defence lawyer explained, blaming the public prosecutor for the discrepancy.

The defence team had requested that the three women, two French and one German, be released on parole despite their sentencing on June 12 to four months in jail for indecency and an attack on public morals.

The defendants, appearing in court earlier dressed in the traditional Tunisian veil, or safsari, again defended their actions when given the chance to speak.

"Our objective was not to break Tunisian law or to attack public morals, but just to support Amina," said German activist Josephine Markmann.

She and Frenchwomen Margaret Stern and Pauline Hillier were arrested on May 29 for staging their controversial demonstration outside Tunis central courthouse in support of Amina Sboui, a detained Tunisian activist from the same radical women's group.

Sboui was arrested for painting the word "Femen" on a wall near a cemetery in the central city of Kairouan last month, in protest against a planned gathering of radical Salafists.

She remains in custody while a judge rules on whether she should face charges of indecency and desecrating a cemetery, which respectively carry possible jail terms of six months and two years.

The lawyer for the European women had been hopeful of a verdict on Friday, on the grounds that the appeals hearing was granted just nine days after their conviction, rather than the normal delay of four to six months.

But lawyers for the Islamist groups blamed "foreign pressures" for the appeals process being accelerated, a claim the public prosecutor rejected.

"There has been no pressure on the judiciary. We accelerated (the process) to give an example to the foreigners present of the quality and advanced state of the Tunisian judiciary," he said.

The four-month jail terms handed down to the defendants have been criticised in Europe, where the case is seen by some as a test of democratic freedoms under Tunisia's Islamist-led government which came to power after the revolution of January 2011.

France, Germany and the European Union all expressed regret at the severity of the sentences.

Since the 1950s, Tunisia has had the most liberal laws in the Arab world on women's rights, and the ruling Islamist party Ennahda is often forced to defend itself against the charge of wanting to roll back those rights.

Separately, the socially conservative Muslim nation has witnessed a sharp rise in the activity of radical Islamists since the revolution, some of whom were angered by the topless protest and called for the Femen activists to be given tougher sentences.