A Tunisian university dean accused of slapping a veiled female student was acquitted on Thursday, in a case that has come to symbolise bristling tensions between Islamists and secularists.
“Tunisian justice acquitted me,” Habib Kazdaghli said, adding that his accuser and another female student on trial for having sacked his office at Manouba University, outside Tunis, had each been given suspended two-month jail sentences.
AFP obtained a copy of the verdicts, confirming that.
The women were convicted of attacking the property of another and of interfering with a public servant carrying out his duties.
Kazdaghli, dean of the humanities faculty, faced a possible five-year jail term if convicted of “violence committed by a public employee while performing his duties,” in a trial that has gripped Tunisia for months.
“I am relieved that this story has ended; it’s a relief for Tunisia, because the attempts to attack the modernity of the university have failed,” he said.
The case dates back to March 2012, when Kazdaghli says two female students wearing the full face veil, or niqab, ransacked his office.
Manouba University, which has around 30,000 students, does not allow the niqab to be worn in class or during exams.
One of the women, who had been barred from the faculty for wearing the niqab in class, accused the dean of slapping her, charges he denied.
The case, whose verdict was repeatedly delayed, has been widely criticised by the teaching establishment, civil society groups and secular opposition parties, who accuse the Islamist-led government of seeking to Islamise society.
Dozens of Kazdaghli’s supporters gathered at the faculty’s meeting hall on Thursday afternoon to celebrate the dean’s acquittal and debate the issue.
“We have won a battle but the war continues!” shouted one of the teachers to the assembly, which opened the meeting by singing the national anthem.
The humanities faculty witnessed regular confrontations in 2012 between secular supporters of the university ban, and Salafists, or ultra-orthodox Muslims, who backed the veiled young women.
The latter have argued that the right to practice their faith was at stake, and demand that religious freedom be respected.
The Islamist party Ennahda, which heads Tunisia’s coalition government, wants to allow the niqab to be worn in universities, but no law has yet been passed permitting it and the universities retain the power to decide.
The niqab, a black full-face veil commonly worn in certain Gulf countries, has become increasingly prevalent in north Africa with the spread of Salafism.
Since the mass uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, radical Islamists suppressed by the former dictator have become increasingly assertive in Tunisia.