Tunisian feminist says prison guards beat prisoner

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — An imprisoned Tunisian member of the Ukrainian women’s group Femen told a court Monday that she intervened after witnessing prison guards mistreating a fellow inmate in her defense against new charges of insulting and defaming a civil servant.

Amina Sboui, 19, shocked Tunisians in March by posting topless photos of herself online to denounce the mistreatment of women in her country — using the kind of seminude protest favored by Femen. She was later arrested on May 19 for scrawling the name of the group on the wall of a cemetery in the Tunisian city of Kairouan, where ultraconservative Muslims had planned an annual conference.

Tunisia is known as one of the most progressive Arab states, especially in terms of women’s rights, but Sboui’s case has challenged the limits of tolerance, especially of a government controlled by Islamists, and it has become the latest battleground over the identity of the country.

Sboui told the judges at the Msaken court, 140 kilometers (87 miles) from Tunis, that guards were beating another inmate in the Messadines women’s prison where she is being held so she attempted to stop them.

She now faces a new set of charges of insulting a state employee in performance of their job and defamation. Sboui’s defense attorney Radhia Nasraoui argued that the charges against her client were fabricated by those behind the mistreatment of inmates and called for them to be dismissed.

The verdict on those charges is expected on July 29.

Sboui also has been charged with undermining public morals and desecrating a cemetery and has been in prison for two months with no trial date set. A judge dismissed the more serious charge of belonging to a criminal organization, one of her defense lawyers, Mokhtar Jannene said Friday.

A committee formed to support Sboui also issued on Friday a message purported to be from Sboui, saying she wasn’t afraid.

“It does not matter to me if I am held in prison for a long time,” she wrote. “To be behind bars is not as hard as to be outside watching a religious dictatorship take over Tunisia.”

The case of Sboui, who originally went by the pseudonym Amina Tyler, has attracted international attention, not least from fellow Femen members, three of whom staged a topless protest in front of the Tunis courthouse on May 29 and called for her freedom.

The women, one German and two French, were arrested and sentenced to four months in prison for offending public morals and threatening public order. Their sentences were later suspended in an appeal, and they were allowed to return to Europe.

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