India court clears reporter in suit filed by MP over #MeToo accusation

FILE PHOTO: M.J. Akbar (C), India's Former Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs, leaves a court after a hearing in a defamation suit he filed against a female journalist in New Delhi, India, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An Indian court on Wednesday cleared journalist Priya Ramani of criminal defamation charges brought by former union minister M. J. Akbar after she publicly accused him of sexual assault in 2018.

The verdict by a court in New Delhi has been hailed as a victory for India's #MeToo movement, in which Akbar - a veteran editor who founded many publications - was one of the highest profile figures to be accused.

He stepped down as minister of state for external affairs in 2018 after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct following Ramani's allegations. Akbar remains a member of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha.

Akbar filed the criminal defamation lawsuit against Ramani in October 2018, accusing her of having "intentionally put forward malicious, fabricated and salacious" allegations. He has denied similar allegations by other women.

"Even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser," the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey told the Delhi court as he acquitted Ramani.

Her decision to go public with her accusations against Akbar was lauded by Indian women's rights activists for lending strength to the country's #MeToo movement, which began in 2018.

"We won this," the #MeTooIndia handle run by journalist Rituparna Chatterjee posted on Twitter after the verdict.

Several powerful men from the worlds of media, entertainment and the arts accused in it have faced fallout since then, including ousters. But activists say more needs to be done to encourage women to come forward to report sexual misconduct, and the movement has had little impact in India's remote and rural areas where sex crimes still largely go unreported.

(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in NEW DELHI; Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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