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#MeToo: ‘India’s MJ Akbar ruling exemplary for Pakistan trial courts’

He lost defamation case against his accuser

SAMAA | - Posted: Feb 21, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 week ago
Posted: Feb 21, 2021 | Last Updated: 1 week ago
#MeToo: ‘India’s MJ Akbar ruling exemplary for Pakistan trial courts’

Priya Ramani - Photo: The Print

Indian court’s vindication of a sexual assault victim in a defamation case has set a precedent for trial courts in Pakistan.

Lawyer Nighat Dad, who is the founder of Digital Rights Foundation, said this at a webinar titled #MeToo and Defamation in the Context of MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani Case. It was organised by Lahore School of Law on Friday. It was moderated by lawyer Asad Jamal and also featured activist Farieha Aziz on the panel.

“It is a very strong judgement coming from a trial court in a criminal defamation case,” said Nighat Dad. “It will encourage women to talk about their harassment experiences and name the perpetrators.”

Priya Ramani, an Indian journalist, made headlines this week after she won a defamation case filed against her by influential newspaper editor-turned-politician MJ Akbar. She had accused him of sexual harassment back in 2017, when she wrote an article for Vogue detailing her harrowing job interview with Akbar, who was a high-profile newspaper editor at the time.

According to Jamal, a number of sexual assault victims have been dragged to courts misusing the criminal defamation laws ever since the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Those in power very conveniently abuse law to silence the ones they wronged, because the process itself is exhausting and drains the victims of time, resources and energy.

Priya being slapped with a defamation suit by someone she had accused of sexual harassment is testimony to how survivors are rendered helpless and bound to proceed with their claims. Such tactics are meant to deter them from speaking out, but Priya turned out to be an exception. After more than two years, she was acquitted in a  historic ruling and that too by a trial court.

One of the landmark precedents that Priya’s acquittal has set is that women can speak out even after years, because it also examines why they are unable to speak in the first place when they are sexually harassed. Asad said the ruling has its own legal, social and jurisprudential aspects to take examples from.

“Nighat said the judgment is 91 pages long, but it is the last two pages that summarise Priya’s struggle of more than two years in the courts,” said Nighat. When asked why an Indian court’s decision is so important in Pakistan’s legal sphere, she said: “There has been a meticulous examination of this case both legally and socially. The ruling is not just exemplary for our trial courts, but high courts can also learn from it.”

Farieha, who is the co-founder of a civil society organisation Bolo Bhi, said Priya’s case is relevant for Pakistani society because India is certainly one system we draw from, not just legally, but socially as well. “When women do speak out against harassment, even online, they are slapped with defamation suits. It then becomes a chilling effect.”

These cases meant to silence the truth, she said, exhaust a person even before the trial starts, and turn into a torture. The last two pages in the judgment explain the entire social context behind the complexities of #MeToo cases, such as:

-Why victims talk about their experiences later

-What are the factors that render them helpless to talk about harassment when it takes place

-Why, in most cases, their only resort is social media to speak out on

-Why there is social stigma attached to speaking out against harassment and

-Why their dignity must be preserved while in the trials

“The judgment captures the cultural framing and framing of the entire #MeToo movement really well,” said Farieha, adding that it is an example of balancing out the constitutional right to dignity and reputational harm of the person making the allegations.

Hindrance in the way of justice is often caused by problematic laws themselves. Nighat said that Section 20 (offences against dignity of a natural person) of Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act and Sections 499 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code are conveniently abused to set sexual harassment cases in a wrong direction. 

“We live in times where online spaces are used by women and marginalised people,” said Nighat. “It is a ray of hope for women rights and human rights organisations and there is a need to talk about it publicly.” she called for all the stakeholders to address stigmas associated with sexual assault cases, and digital rights should be translated just like constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, right to dignity and privacy, etc. 

Farieha has proposed a number of amendments to the Senate standing committee on human rights for Sections 20 of PECA and 499 and 500 of the PPC. “The Federal Investigation Agency cannot declare anyone guilty,” she said, adding that defamation charges from the FIA are “ridiculous” against a person who has filed a harassment case in the court.

“It is a coercive process,” she remarked. The experts also called for the abolition of Section 20 of PECA.

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