LA MANOUBA, Tunisia  - The verdict in the trial of a Tunisian university dean accused of violence towards a veiled female student was delayed on Thursday, as hundreds of people protested outside the court.

The trial, which has been repeatedly adjourned, has come to symbolise the standoff between secularists and Islamists 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, who is dean of the humanities faculty at Manouba University. The latest delay resulted from a strike called by the Tunisian magistrates' union to demand the creation of a judicial body completely independent of the government.

"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 amid bristling tensions between Islamists and secularists.

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. The 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 the classroom, accused Kazdoghli 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 on Thursday, referring to the demands by Salafists that female students wearing the niqab be allowed to attend courses.

The university regulations ban the full face veil in class, and there has been mounting tensions friction between staff at the faculty of 13,000 students and Salafists who adhere to an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam. Among the university dean's supporters outside the court house on Thursday were participants from the World Social Forum currently being held in Tunis.

"Sharing the values of freedom is at the heart of this forum," Kazdoghli told the crowd, which included people of various nationalities, many of them European.

"We have come to defend justice, freedom and the necessary separation of religion and the state," said Stephanie Gosek, a Belgian activist.