Rights activists and politicians protested on Thursday outside a court in Tunis to support a university dean accused of violence towards a veiled female student, his lawyer said, as the trial adjourned.
Mohamed Hedi Labidi said the trial of Habib Kazdoghli, dean of the humanities faculty at Manouba University, was postponed until January 3, with both the defense and the prosecution asking to “examine new elements in the case.”
Kazdoghli is accused of “an act of violence committed by a public employee while performing his duties,” a crime that carries a possible five-year jail term.
The trial, which is being watched closely amid bristling tensions between secular Tunisians and hardline Salafist, relates to an incident in March, when Kazdoghli’s says two female students wearing the full face veil, or niqab, ransacked his office.
One of the women, who had been barred from the faculty for wearing the niqab in the classroom, accused him of slapping her.
Some 100 people rallied outside the courthouse in support of Kazdoghli, with Labidi saying before the trial that they were there “to defend the Tunisia that we want: modern, democratic, open and tolerant.”
The trial has already been adjourned several times since the summer.
There has been a standoff for months between staff at the faculty of 13,000 students and the Salafists, who demonstrated in November last year, demanding that female students wearing the niqab be allowed to attend courses.
The leader of the protest movement, Mohamed Bakhti, died last week after going on hunger strike for nearly two months following his arrest in September over a deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.
Nizar Toumi, the lawyer acting for the two young women accusing Kazdaghli of violence, said on Thursday that the dean was “morally responsible” for Bakhti’s death, for having initiated an anti-Salafist media campaign.
The hardline Islamists, who adhere to an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam, say they are the victims of an unjustified crackdown by the authorities.
But secular Tunisians accuse the government, led by Islamist party Ennahda, of seeking to Islamize society and failing to rein in the Salafists, who have been blamed for a wave of violence since the revolution in January last year.