Landmark victory for India’s MeToo movement as Delhi court strikes down defamation claim

In a landmark ruling on a case that has defined India’s MeToo movement, a Delhi court on Wednesday struck down the criminal defamation lawsuit brought by a former government minister against a woman journalist who accused him of sexual harassment.

Acquitting Priya Ramani in the case initiated by former foreign minister MJ Akbar, additional chief metropolitan magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey observed that “a woman has the right to put her grievance, even after decades”.

The court also noted the social stigma attached to such allegations, and said that society must understand the impact of sexual abuse and harassment on its victims. Justice Pandey observed that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser” and that the “right of reputation can’t be protected at the cost of right to dignity.”

“Truth and the absolute truth is my only defence,” Ms Ramani had maintained throughout the trial.

The lawsuit marked a milestone in India’s MeToo movement, which swept across social media in October 2018 sparking conversations about consent, workplace sexual harassment, minority rights, and caste- and gender-based violence.

Mr Akbar, 70, is a former newspaper editor who was accused by multiple women of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual assault by women journalists.

The verdict was initially due be pronounced on 10 February, but was deferred to Wednesday and issued after a further agonising delay on the day.

“It feels amazing, it really does,” Ms Ramani told reporters soon after the the verdict was pronounced. In her testimony in court, she had stated that in December 1993, Mr Akbar had sexually harassed her at a room at The Oberoi hotel in Mumbai when she had gone there to meet him for a job interview.

Ms Ramani had pleaded truth, good faith, public interest and public good as her defence. Her lawyer Rebecca John said it was “the most important case of my lifetime.” Mr Akbar was represented by advocates Geeta Luthra and Sandeep Kapur.

The court also noted that both parties can file an appeal in case of any grievance and asked Ms Ramani to furnish a bail bond in case an appeal is preferred, the legal news website Bar and Bench reported.

Women responded emotionally to the news of Ms Ramani’s acquittal, saying it felt like a personal victory in a country where rampant patriarchy makes it difficult for women to speak up.

“Ok now I’m really crying,” tweeted journalist Riddhi Dastidar. “Didn’t expect to be but this feels so personal. I bet a lot of survivors are crying today. thank you to Priya Ramani, Ghazala Wahab and everyone who fought & spoke up. from many of us who never got to have our trauma addressed or validated. thank you sic.”

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