Falsely accused of sexual harassment

In the spring of 2018, I was wrongly accused of stalking and harassment/sexual harassment by a colleague with whom I had had an intimate relationship for six months. I was a Senior Lecturer (universitetslektor) at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden. She was a postdoctoral researcher at the same institution. Our relationship started online, while she was still in Turkey. We were planning to start a new life together, so I helped her come to Sweden with her daughter in August 2017. From August to November 2017, we lived together as a family (documents provided). Hence our relationship started before we became colleagues at the same institution.

In March 2018, after a bitter break up a few months earlier, she forced me to step down from a European Council-funded Marie Curie project we got together, threatening that she would file a complaint of harassment if I didn’t comply (documents provided). I was about to take my son, who was gravely ill with cancer, to Barcelona for a clinical trial, so I withdrew from the project. Although our relationship had ended, we were still friends. She was using my car and had me paying her rent and phone bills in return for cash as she didn’t have a bank account. We were also making joint grant and conference applications. 

The allegations she filed to Lund University against me coincided with the death from cancer of my five-year-old son. The University gave me a “warning” the same day I had to take the “do not resuscitate” decision for my son. He died a month later. At that time, I did not have the strength to defend myself against her or the university’s inadequate, deeply problematic investigation. My priorities were with my son who spent his last month at home, under palliative care.

The investigation is based on two interviews (one with me and one with her) as well as a short Skype conversation with a former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies where we both worked. Attached to the investigation are also text message conversations during our break up where detached passages have been translated from Turkish to English. In the light of the above so-called evidence and despite the fact that we had a good professional and personal relationship for three months after the break up, the investigator states that I was guilty of harassment in the form of stalking, an accusation I strongly denied. The conclusion is totally unwarranted as the analysis seems to lack both objectivity and evaluation of evidence. There were also formal shortcomings surrounding the investigation itself. I was not presented with the full set of allegations until after the investigation; I was not given the opportunity to review or comment on the investigative material before receiving the formal decision; I was not even permitted to record the interview. All these objections have been relayed to Lund University by a formal letter written by my former lawyer on 10 October 2018 (documents provided).  

It is remarkable that the investigator did not take into account the fact that the person who brought the accusations against me and I had had an intimate relationship. If one is to investigate a private matter, then all aspects of that private matter must be examined. An email exchange with the dean on 4 April 2018, two weeks after the complaint was filed, summarizes the case well. This is what he wrote: “In all honesty we are having difficulties in finding an appropriate label for this incidence, but at least it is clear to us that it relates to interpersonal relations at the workplace in which at least one of the parts experience deep discomfort”. Yet, as a result of the external investigator’s deficient and biased report, the university gave me a warning for harassment and unprofessional behaviour.

Not satisfied with the university’s action, my accuser then started sending emails with false accusations against me to the institutions with which I was affiliated during my leave of absence (documents provided). She also attempted to undermine the charity projects my family and I were planning to the memory of my son and to help other families with children suffering from neuroblastoma. She started alleging that I am a “convicted sexual harasser”. On 1 June 2020, she finally decided to go public by initiating an online campaign of shaming and humiliation. I was not named at first, but was clearly identifiable to friends and colleagues, and still more so since she has been spreading these rumours since 2018. Even though she has been sent two cease and desist letters by my lawyer in Sweden which reminded her that defamation is a criminal offence under the Swedish Penal Code, she deliberately chose to ignore them and escalated her campaign, claiming that I have been harassing her since 2018 and insinuating that I was sacked from Lund University for this reason, without any shred of evidence. Neither claim was true for I had moved to Spain after my son’s death and had not been in touch with her since 6 March 2018. I then decided to resign from the university one and a half years later due to the structural reorganization of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (two letters by the dean of the faculty, one dated 20 December 2019, the other 10 June 2020, i.e. after the public shaming campaign, confirm that. Documents provided).

The social media campaign took a particularly vicious form. The pro-government media amplified the message by calling me a “terrorist pervert” protected by the Swedish state. Independent media chose to play the three wise monkeys, ignoring my right to respond to the allegations and defend myself. Self-proclaimed progressive, feminist lawyers declared in a statement, published online on 26 June 2020, that “they will be following up on the investigation” launched by the state, conveniently forgetting that the same state is planning to roll back legislation designed to protect women from gender-based violence. And my accuser, emboldened by all this, continued to harass me without any scruples.

These baseless accusations and the online shaming campaign it triggered have caused me great harm, both professionally and privately. The Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in Turkey has started a politically inspired investigation against me. Under pressure, my publisher in Turkey had to postpone indefinitely the publication of a memoir on my son’s battle with cancer (the income generated by this book was going to help a Turkish child with neuroblastoma). Similarly, we had to delay pitching the documentary we have been filming since 2018 on how my son’s mother (an indirect victim of this merciless campaign), and I are coping with grief. I have been subject to verbal abuse and direct threats to my life on social media. My accuser and her self-described feminist lawyers have encouraged these attacks by blatantly lying about the legal process in Sweden and misleading public opinion in Turkey (their letter of 26 June is still accessible online). This has resulted in an online manifesto-cum-petition called #erilakademiyedurde (stop masculinist academia) signed by 488 Turkish academics, students and activists where I am described as a “perpetrator of violence” against women. As a regular academic with a moderate income, I had to spend an unusually large amount of money to legally fight these accusations because I had to defend myself in several countries at the same time. And last but certainly not least, my mental and physical health has deteriorated significantly as I have had to deal with these allegations at the same as I am trying to cope with post traumatic stress disorder and grief. 

I admit that I have made some problematic decisions. For one, I should not have helped someone I had been involved with get a generously funded European project. I should not have agreed to be her supervisor even though our relationship had ended. But does this justify spreading false accusations and outright lies? 

I normally think that private matters should remain private. But now I see no other way than to respond to the false accusations spread about me. So I have filed a criminal lawsuit against her in Sweden for “aggravated defamation” and compensation of damages. Our claims are supported with ample evidence – 29 separate appendices with a total of 118 pages. And I believe that justice will prevail. 

* All documents referred to or quoted in this text have been submitted to Lund District court on 12 November 2020, and hence are now in the public domain. 

Umut Özkırımlı

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