India court rules against former union minister in #MeToo criminal defamation case
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India court rules against former union minister in #MeToo criminal defamation case

A Delhi trial court on Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation case brought by former Union Minister MJ Akbar relating to sexual harassment allegations that Ramani made against him during the 2018 #MeToo movement.

Ramani had written an article on sexual harassment for Vogue in 2017 and subsequently had tweeted accusing Akbar of sexual harassment in 2018. She alleged that Akbar had sexually harassed her in 1993 when he called her to his room in Hotel Oberoi at Mumbai for a job interview. At that time, Akbar held editorial positions in several leading Indian news publications. One week after her tweet in 2018, he denied the allegations and filed a criminal defamation complaint against Ramani at the Delhi court. He also resigned as union minister due to mounting public pressure and increasing allegations against him by at least a dozen more women journalists.

The court at Rouse Avenue on Wednesday acquitted Ramani, holding that Akbar was “not a man of stellar reputation” and that “women can’t be punished for raising instances of sexual abuse by complaints claiming defamation.” The judge took cognizance of pervasive sexual harassment at the workplace, noting that most cases of sexual harassment occur behind closed doors with victims themselves being unaware of their assault.

Further pointing out the lack of mechanisms to address sexual harassment at the workplace at the time of referral as well as the social stigma around speaking against a person with social status, he held:

…the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before law and equal protection of law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution. The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.

The decision has been hailed by lawyers, journalists, activists and common citizens alike for upholding individual dignity and women’s right to speak their truth which lays at the bedrock of the #MeToo movement. Ramani has expressed feeling vindicated on behalf of all women who have spoken up against sexual harassment at work, despite having to stand in court as an accused. Many hope that the decision will encourage other victims to speak out against their abusers in powerful positions.