Former Union minister MJ Akbar’s lawyer on Saturday told a Delhi court that social media trial was unacceptable in a country that follows the rule of law, Bar and Bench reported. Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra was making submissions on behalf of Akbar in a criminal defamation case, filed by him against journalist Priya Ramani over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment.
Ramani had accused Akbar of sexual harassment in 2018, when the #MeToo movement began in India. Following this, Akbar resigned from the Union Council of Ministers.
During Saturday’s hearing, Luthra took reference from a previous judgement to counter Ramani’s 2017 article in Vogue India, where she first made the allegations without naming Akbar. She eventually named Akbar in 2018. Luthra said past judgements show that journalists have no special privilege and that comments made by them in articles cannot amount to be defamatory, according to Bar and Bench reported.
“Press Council says you have to be responsible,” Luthra argued. “There are judgements that say you cannot have a parallel trial. Here, there is a trial by a person on social media...it is unacceptable in a country ruled by rule of law.”
Luthra reiterated that the allegations against Akbar were “fabricated and false”, and raised questions over Ramani deleting her Twitter account, which she said contained primary evidence related to the case. “I want to show what is bad faith.. removing the tweet when the matter was sub judice was bad faith,” Luthra said, according to Bar and Bench.
Akbar’s lawyer then went on to argue that it was on Ramani’s part to prove that the alleged meeting between her and Akbar took place in a hotel, as she had claimed, PTI reported. “You [Ramani] didn’t feel the requirement of evidence of landline record, hotel, petrol receipt, CCTV [footage],” she said. “It [the allegation] is complete hearsay, fabricated and false.”
On Ramani’s witnesses, Luthra told the court that Nilofer Venkatraman was her friend and thus an “interested witness”, while Ghazala Wahab gave a version of a story which was “unconnected to the present case”, according to PTI.
Luthra was supposed to conclude her arguments on Saturday, but she could not. The court will now hear the matter next on January 27. In the previous hearing, Luthra had said that Ramani made the allegations against Akbar after he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party.
After Ramani had identified Akbar as the editor during the #MeToo movement in 2018, around 20 more women came forward and accused Akbar of sexual misconduct over several years during his journalistic career.
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. He was replaced by Ravindra Kumar Pandey.