Kairouan, Tunisia: A Tunisian activist with the women’s topless protest group Femen went on trial Thursday for illegal possession of pepper spray, a day after three Europeans bared their breasts in the capital Tunis.

Femen said the young women arrested Wednesday outside the central courthouse, two French and one German, would at midday appear before the public prosecutor, who would decide if they would be charged.

Their protest was the first of its kind in the Arab world and shocked some in Tunisia, which has seen a rise in the activity of hardline Islamists since the country’s January 2011 revolution. In Kairouan, 150km south of Tunis, Amina Sboui, known by her pseudonym Tyler, was brought before the judge wearing a safsari, the traditional Tunisian veil. Arrested on May 19 after painting the word Femen on a wall in Tunisia’s religious capital, where radical Salafists were planning to hold an illegal congress, she told the judge she had carried the pepper spray for two months, for self-defence.

Her lawyer Souheib Bahri said the charges against her carry a prison sentence of up to five years, but added he was confident she only risked a maximum six-month sentence for possessing the self-defence spray. Sboui sparked both scandal and a wave of online support in socially conservative Tunisia for posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook.

Her actions reportedly incurred death threats from hardline Islamists, dozens of whom protested outside the court on Thursday, chanting slogans including Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) and “The people want the application of Islamic law”.

Dozens of other Tunisians outraged by the topless protests demonstrated outside the courthouse, shouting insults at the lawyers of the young woman and where a police cordon was erected to protect the building.

Lawyers said to be representing the residents of the city appeared in court asking to take part in the trial as civilian participants and as the accusations against the young woman grew.

“There was a desire to sow trouble and sedition in Kairouan and we want the file to be transferred (on this basis) to the public prosecutor. It is not just a case of possessing pepper spray,” said lawyer Hamed El Maghreb.

The judge rejected the request.

Sboui’s father Mounir Sboui said before the trial began that he was “proud” of his daughter for her ideological commitment while describing her acts as excessive.

“I am proud of my daughter. This case is getting more and more politicised. Her actions were excessive but she defends her ideas,” he said.

Her family has described her as someone who suffers from chronic depression and has suicidal tendencies, and for a long time they prevented her from going out, claiming her safety was at risk.

But the young woman accused her relatives of holding her in captivity and beating her, and ran away from home in April.

She has regularly appeared in public since then, although never topless.

The Femen movement, founded in Ukraine and now based in Paris, has flourished since 2010, with feminists around the world stripping off in protest at a wide range of issues linked to the mistreatment of women, but also against dictatorship.

Tunisia, whose ruling coalition is headed by Islamist party Ennahda, has the most liberal laws in the Arab world governing women’s rights, although gender equality has yet to be inscribed in the new constitution.

Secular opposition parties and feminist groups frequently accuse Ennahda of seeking to roll back women’s rights, although the Islamist party has opposed enshrining Islamic sharia law in the constitution.

But a failed attempt last year to introduce the concept of gender “complementarity” rather than equality into the constitution raised serious doubts about the party’s real intentions.

The latest edition of the proposed text, drafted in April, states that “all male and female citizens have the same rights and duties”.