The verdict in the trial of a Tunisian university dean accused of violence towards a veiled female student was delayed Thursday, as hundreds protested outside the court.
The repeatedly adjourned trial has come to symbolise bristling tensions between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia, where the Islamist Ennahda party was voted to power in elections that followed the January 2011 uprising.
The new date was set for April 4, according to the court in the La Manouba suburb of Tunis, where a large crowd gathered to support the defendant, Habib Kazdoghli, dean of the humanities faculty at Manouba University.
The latest delay resulted from a magistrates' strike call to demand the creation of a completely independent judicial body.
"I stand with the judges striking for their independence, it is proof that they are also suffering from interference by the political establishment," Kazdoghli told AFP.
Kazdoghli faces 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.
It has been been widely criticised by the teaching establishment, civil society groups and leftist opposition parties, who accuse the Ennahda-led government of seeking to Islamise society.
Human Rights Watch urged the national assembly to create an independent judiciary free when it debates a draft law to establish a temporary judicial council this week.
"Tunisia desperately needs an independent judiciary after so many years in which the political authorities manipulated the courts, denying justice to so many," said HRW's Eric Goldstein.
The Kazdoghli case relates to an incident in March 2012, when the accused says two female students wearing the full face veil, or niqab, ransacked his office, charges on which they are being tried concurrently.
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 denies.
Kazdoghli condemned what he called a "case of complete fabrication".
"We reject the pressures on us, whether they come from the religious or political authorities," he said Thursday, referring to Salafist demands female students wearing the niqab be allowed to attend courses.
The university bans the full face veil in classrooms, and there has been mounting friction between staff at the faculty of 13,000 students and Salafists who adhere to an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam.
Among the dean's supporters outside the court on Thursday were participants from the World Social Forum currently being held in Tunis.
"We have come to defend justice, freedom and the necessary separation of religion and the state," said Stephanie Gosek, a Belgian activist.