Former Indian minister and editor loses #MeToo defamation case


A former Indian minister lost a defamation suit on Wednesday against a woman who accused him of sexual harassment, in a verdict hailed as a major victory for India’s #MeToo movement.

In 2018, Priya Ramani became the first of a string of women to go public with allegations of alleged “predatory conduct” against MJ Akbar, a former high-profile newspaper editor and later a junior foreign minister.

The trial court in Delhi, in acquitting Ms. Ramani, ruled that “a woman cannot be punished for raising their voice on the pretext of criminal defamation”.

Ms. Ramani said on Wednesday: “I feel vindicated on behalf of all the women who have ever spoken up against sexual harassment in the workplace.”

“Sexual harassment at the workplace has got the attention it deserves, despite the fact that it was me, the victim, who had to stand up in court as the accused,” Ms. Ramani added.

The BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi says Wednesday’s judgement by the trial court in the capital is extremely significant as it will set a precedent for other #MeToo cases in India. It will serve as encouragement to other victims and survivors to take on their abusers.

A celebrated editor and author-turned-politician, Mr. Akbar was the most high-profile figure to be named in India’s #MeToo movement. He resigned as junior foreign minister after the scandal in October 2018.

He sued Ms. Ramani, saying her accusations had damaged his “stellar reputation”.

Ms. Ramani said in court that her defence was “truth and public good” and that Mr. Akbar’s reputation was “flawed”.

In his ruling, Magistrate Ravindra Pandey said that “a man of social status can also be a sexual harasser” and that “sexual abuse takes away dignity and self-confidence, and right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity”.

He accepted Ms. Ramani’s contention that Mr. Akbar’s claim of a stellar reputation had been demolished by the testimony of another journalist who also accused him of sexual abuse.

Ms. Ramani and several of the witnesses who testified in court said that in the 1990s, Mr. Akbar was a powerful man – editor-in-chief of The Asian Age newspaper, a former MP and former spokesman of the Congress party.

They pointed out that he was in his 40s, had power and clout and that the women he allegedly preyed on were in their early 20s, they were his subordinates, had no influence, and many of them desperately needed to keep their jobs.

In what appeared to be one of the most damning testimonies against him, a former colleague Ghazala Wahab alleged in an article in The Wire that her last six months at The Asian Age “were pure hell” when he repeatedly “sexually harassed and molested” her.

In a statement posted on Twitter, Mr. Akbar said Ms. Wahab’s – and other – allegations were politically motivated. (Source: BBC)