Jailed Tunisian feminist faces new charges after altercation with guard

Amina Sboui, 19, shocked Tunisians in March by posting topless photos of herself online to denounce the mistreatment of women.

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TUNIS, Tunisia // Amina Sboui, the imprisoned Tunisian member of the Ukrainian women's group Femen, is facing new charges following an altercation with a prison guard, her defence lawyer said.

Sboui, 19, shocked Tunisians in March by posting topless photos of herself online to denounce the mistreatment of women in 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.

She has been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation, undermining public morals and desecrating a cemetery, which could result in an eight-year prison term upon conviction. She has been in prison for two months, and no trial date has been set.

Her lawyer, Halim Meddeb, said Sboui is now facing two new charges, "insulting a civil servant in the exercise of his duty" and "defamation of a civil servant" after she tried to stop a guard from allegedly beating another prisoner.

He said that Sboui will appear in court on Monday to respond to the new charges, which could result in 18 months' imprisonment.

The feminist has already been convicted of the minor charge of carrying pepper spray and fined about $180 under an 1894 law against carrying "burning objects". The prosecution has appealed that verdict by calling for at least a six-month prison term.

In a statement on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch condemned the multiple charges against Sboui, suggesting they are politically motivated and calling for her to be released until her trial.

"Prosecutors seem to be piling on serious charges against Amina Sboui that hardly seem to have anything to do with what she may have done," said Eric Goldstein, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director for the group. "Amina Sboui could be stuck in pre-trial detention for up to 14 months and then serve a long prison term, if convicted for what was a non-violent – albeit provocative – act."

On Wednesday, a committee in defense of Sboui led by well-known blogger Lina Ben Mhenni held a news conference to express concern about the new charges.

Rapper Alaa Yacoub, known as Weld El 15, was there to show his support as well. Originally sentenced to two years in prison for a song calling police dogs, Yacoub's sentence was commuted on July 2 to just six months suspended.

"The situation has become more and more critical for Amina, who is confronted by a fierce rage that is unjustified, except perhaps by the hatred for women held by the leaders of this government who have decided to make Amina an example for all women that dare confront Islamism in this country," said Ben Mhenni.

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

The three 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.

Sboui can remain for up to 14 months in pre-trial detention. Her lawyers' requests for bail have been denied.