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India fights 'sex-pest' slur

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By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 22.04.08

London, April 22: A high court judge and jury in London were today hearing a libel action brought by Captain Ashvini Sharma, once Air India’s most senior man in the UK, against the Evening Standard.

This follows publication of a front-page report in August 2006 headlined “Sex shame of airline chief” in which the paper had accused Sharma, Air India’s regional director for the UK, of harassing junior female staff.

Damages could be heavy if the paper loses the case as Sharma’s counsel, Ian Winter, QC, has told the judge, Justice Eady, that the article was “grossly defamatory and fundamentally false”.

When Sharma, a former aide-de-camp to the President of India, read the article, he was “devastated”, Winter said.

“In short, his world fell apart. He was unable to sleep or eat properly and fell into depression. In the following six months, he lost 10kg in weight and was prescribed diazepam for anxiety and insomnia. Thanks in large measure to the support of his loving wife and family, he has recovered.”

The newspaper intends to defend itself by producing six women in an effort to prove that 53-year-old Sharma — his wife and two grown-up children remained behind in London while he took up another senior appointment with Air India in Mumbai — was a “serial sex pest” who exploited his position to prey on vulnerable females, the Evening Standard’s counsel, Victoria Sharp, QC, said in her opening address.

On Sharma’s behalf, Winter urged the jury to treat the evidence they would hear from the six women witnesses “with very real caution”.

On the Evening Standard’s behalf, Sharp stated: “We say that Captain Sharma sexually harassed six women in different ways at different times and we intend to prove it before you by the evidence that we call.”

She said that the women, aged between 18 and early 30s, came from different countries and were “within or near the bottom rung of their employment”.

“This case is about the conduct of a powerful man in and out of the workplace in relation to junior women workers,” she said.

Sharp acknowledged parts of the article were inaccurate.

In fact, Winter had pointed out that just before Sharma’s successful four-year tenure as the airline’s regional director was due to end, he was told by police there had been a complaint from a female ground services employee, but the investigation was concluded with no charges brought.

The newspaper accepted that Sharma was not told to step down and did not resign his post, which had expired naturally and led to his promotion as executive director based in Mumbai.

The newspaper also accepted that he was not facing charges for harassment at the time or had been protected by anybody.

According to Winter, the article had led to Sharma being shunned in Britain where he had wanted to make his home with his wife and children. The Evening Standard’s report could only mean that Sharma was guilty of sexual harassment of such seriousness that it resulted in his summary dismissal and that he only previously got away with it because of his political connections.

For the paper, Sharp argued the opposite point of view.

“What we do say is this — the most serious allegation in the article, sexual harassment, is true,” she claimed.

“Captain Sharma is a serial sex pest and, even though he did not step down from his job, he should have done.”

She went on: “As the article makes clear, it is about sexual harassment in the workplace and we say the sort of behaviour indulged in by Captain Sharma was exactly that — clearly sexually motivated, clearly way over the line of what was acceptable. It is not a technical question. It is a matter of common sense and decency.”

The case continues.