TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A dean at a Tunisian university appeared before a court Thursday on charges of assaulting a veiled student, a case that is part of a long-running dispute between secularists and religious conservatives at the school.
Students at Manouba University known as Salafis who follow an ultraconservative strand of Islam have been pushing for greater piety on the campus just outside Tunis, the capital, as well as for prayer rooms and allowing female students to sit exams wearing the religious face veil.
They have been opposed by Humanities Department Dean Habib Kazdaghli, who has denounced efforts to add religion to the university, and the result has been rival demonstrations, clashes between students and, at one point, a months-long sit-in by Salafis that disrupted winter exams.
A young Salafi student filed a lawsuit against Kazdaghli claiming he assaulted her in his office. The dean has denied that, saying he was only defending himself against an agitated student who burst into his office uninvited.
"The victim has become the guilty one," he told The Associated Press. "It was I who first filed charges against the two veiled students who charged into my office and ransacked my papers." He said his suit has yet to be acted on by prosecutors.
Kazdaghli is being charged with "violence perpetrated by a civil servant in the course of his duties," a crime that carries a penalty of 16 days to three years in prison and a fine of between $37 and $300.
Manouba University has been one of the most visible flashpoints of the struggle in post-uprising Tunisia over the role of religion in public life.
Under the secular dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, outward signs of religiosity were strongly discouraged and Islamists often imprisoned. Since his overthrow in a popular uprising in January 2011, there has been in an explosion of public piety, which has often come into conflict with many members of the secular establishment.
Thursday's brief session of the trial was adjourned until Oct. 25 at the request of the defense.
It was attended in solidarity by many members of civil society and human rights activists.