The Delhi High Court on Wednesday issued a notice to journalist Priya Ramani on a plea filed by former Union minister MJ Akbar challenging a trial court order acquitting her in a criminal defamation case, Live Law reported.

Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in India in 2018, after which Akbar resigned from the Union Council of Ministers and filed a defamation case against the journalist.

On February 17, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey, while acquitting Ramani, had observed that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser”. The judgement also noted that a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against abuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation could not be protected at the cost of right to life and dignity.

“The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades,” the order stated.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Akbar’s counsel Geeta Luthra and Rajiv Nayar told Justice Mukta Gupta that the trial court erroneously acquitted Ramani, despite concluding that her tweets in the case were defamatory.

“So the minute such a finding is returned, nothing further has to be adjudicated,” Nayar claimed. “These observations pertaining to sexual harassment are unnecessary.”

Justice Gupta said that finding whether the content was defamatory or not is only the first step in the proceedings, after which the trial court has to consider the defense of the accused.

Luthra claimed that the trial court cannot rely its judgement on the “possibility of defence” of the accused that she was speaking truth about sexual harassment.

“It is well established that an acquittal in a defamation case based on the possibility of a defence is bad in law,” Akbar’s appeal said. “Indeed, precedent states that if there is any doubt as to whether the defamatory statement is true or not, there is no defence at all and that no protection extends to an accused if a defamatory statement merely ‘may’ be true. Acquitting the respondent on the basis of the possibility of a defence, therefore, is an apparent error and ought not be upheld.”

Justice Gupta sought Ramani’s response and fixed the case for hearing on January 13, 2022.

Also read:

  1. #MeToo: Priya Ramani verdict is a ray of hope – but Indian women face a long road ahead
  2. Interview: Priya Ramani and her lawyer Rebecca John on #MeToo movement’s first big win in India
  3. MJ Akbar vs Priya Ramani: Reading between the lines of the Ramayana tales cited by the judge

A timeline of the case from October 2018

Ramani had first made the allegations about an incident of sexual harassment by an acclaimed newspaper editor in an article in Vogue India in 2017. She identified Akbar as that editor during the #MeToo movement in October 2018.

The Patiala House Court summoned Ramani as an accused in January 2019 after Akbar filed the defamation case against her. In February 2019, she was granted bail on a personal bond of Rs 10,000.

In May 2019, Akbar denied meeting Ramani in a hotel room where she alleged he had sexually harassed her. He also dismissed all the information that Ramani provided about the meeting.

Ramani told the Delhi court in September 2020 that she deserved to be acquitted as she shared her experience in good faith and encouraged other women to speak out against sexual harassment. Her lawyer Rebecca John, while submitting the final arguments in the case, said that Ramani had proved her allegations against Akbar with solid evidence, which were also confirmed by multiple women.

In November, Ramani and Akbar had rejected the court’s proposal for mutual settlement in the case. On November 18, the Delhi High Court had transferred Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vishal Pahuja, who presided over the case.

After her acquittal in February, Ramani had said she felt vindicated on behalf of all the women who spoke out against sexual harassment. “Sexual harassment has got the attention it deserves,” she had said. “This matter has been about women, it hasn’t been about me. I happened to represent all the women who spoke up...the women who spoke up before me and the women who spoke up after me.”