New Delhi: A Delhi court Wednesday acquitted journalist Priya Ramani in a criminal defamation complaint filed by former Union Minister M.J. Akbar over her allegations of sexual harassment against him.
The court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) Ravindra Kumar Pandey accepted the contention of the accused that Akbar was not a man of stellar reputation.
In its verdict, the court said it took into consideration the systematic abuse of Ramani and her witness at the workplace.
“Prior to the issuance of the Vishaka guidelines by the Supreme Court, they did not have the option to lodge the complaint of sexual harassment due to social stigma attached,” the court ruled.
“Time has come for society to understand sexual abuse and harassment and its implications on the victim,” it added.
The court further said that most women do not speak about harassment for the social stigma attached to it.
“Right of the reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of a woman’s reputation guaranteed under Article 21,” the court said.
“The woman has the right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and after decades,” it added. “It is shameful such incidents are happening in the country where epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana are written.”
Akbar has the option to appeal against the order.
“This judgment is a validation of stand taken by us and all women during the #Metoo campaign,” Rebecca John, Ramani’s lawyer said after the verdict. “We did a robust trial. We left nothing to chance. Priya bravely withstood the legal cross examination.”
The court had reserved its verdict on the complaint on 1 February after Akbar and Ramani completed their arguments.
On 10 February the court had deferred the judgment for today, citing delays in submission of written arguments by both Akbar and Ramani.
Ramani had in 2018 made allegations of sexual harassment against the former minister in wake of the #MeToo movement.
Earlier, in 2017, at the beginning of the #MeToo movement, she wrote an article in a magazine narrating her personal experience of sexual harassment as a young woman journalist, but did not name the alleged assaulter. A year later, in a tweet, Ramani revealed it was Akbar who allegedly harassed her sexually.
Akbar accused Ramani of defaming him and filed a criminal defamation complaint in the Delhi court in October 2018. He had to step down when more accounts of alleged sexual harassment by him surfaced. Akbar termed all of the statements as false, fabricated and deeply distressing.
‘Ramani’s defamatory remarks made others repeat it’
Akbar’s lawyer, senior advocate Geeta Luthra, argued in court that the alleged false, defamatory statement by Ramani led others to repeat it.
“She started this. That is why I immediately made the complaint (of defamation) against her. Due process was available to Ramani and women but they had no desire to go for it,” she said, claiming Ramani chose a much easier route to “malign” and “defame” Akbar on social media. “This is impermissible,” Luthra said.
Ramani’s allegations were based on “blind truth”, without exercising due care and caution, Luthra maintained.
‘#MeToo movement gave me courage’
Ramani, who was questioned during the trial, told the court that the #MeToo movement gave her courage to name her assaulter.
On Luthra’s argument that Ramani did not make an in-depth inquiry before defaming Akbar, the journalist’s lawyer senior advocate Rebecca John said her client had talked about her own experience. “Who do I investigate with? I am an eyewitness in my own case,” said John in rebuttal.
To Luthra’s contention that Ramani had tarnished Akbar’s reputation as a journalist, John said at no point had her client challenged the former minister’s journalistic competence.
“The contestation of Akbar’s reputation is on basis of the allegations against him. There is no contradiction between the two,” John said.
During arguments, John submitted that 10 women had made allegations against Akbar and Ramani had named them. If this doesn’t show predatory behaviour, then nothing does, she told the court.