We must uphold “innocent until proven guilty”

The #MeToo movement is not only a feminist revolution. It has rattled hierarchies of power; men’s patriarchal behavior is questioned and awareness of sexual harassment and sexual abuse has increased. The impact of the movement has been positive in many aspects, changing the way men behave and interact with women, and the way organizations handle sexual harassment and allegations of inappropriate behaviour. It is important that those who are sexually abused report their perpetrators to the police and have their cases heard in court. It seems that, today, more women feel empowered to come forward and share their stories. That is a good and important development.

But the #MeToo movement also has its downsides and one, in particular, is the men who are falsely accused. The men whose lives and careers are destroyed, and reputations ruined. The men who, without proof, are sacrificed in the name of feminism. Is that a cost we should pay? No, people’s lives should not be used as currency to favor any movement. Yet, there are many cases where disdain for people’s lives is accepted in the name of the movement. It is frightening how those who take the law into their own hands are so widely tolerated and even egged on. Those who, in the name of activism, are allowed to engage in the most obnoxious form of public shaming of innocent people. Don’t get me wrong. I am not critical of #MeToo per se. But I am critical of how innocent people are exploited to make a pseudo-feminist case, and how many others seem to engage in lynch-mob behavior to get the death sentence for someone’s reputation, without a trial.

I have some experience in this regard. For the past two and a half years (between 2018-2020), I have been falsely accused. Without being convicted or prosecuted for any crime, I have been labeled a criminal. I usually think that private matters should remain private. But now, I believe going public is the only way I can respond to the false accusations about me spread by a colleague with whom I had an intimate relationship. Accusations that have caused me great harm. Her claims that I am a “sexual harasser” and “convicted harasser” have, without any evidence, scrutiny or questioning, been taken for truths and put me in a harrowing situation of public shaming and humiliation. By sending letters to institutions where I work with the same false accusations, she seems to be hoping that “politically correct” colleagues and universities with whom I might collaborate in the future will withdraw their support and simply “cancel” me.

Since this person continues to spread false allegations, I have filed a criminal lawsuit against her in Sweden for “aggravated defamation” and compensation of damages. Individuals should not act as prosecutors or judges. That is the role of the legal system. 

One of the basic principles in the justice system is that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The prosecution must demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, each essential element of the crime charged. But in social media, there is an impossible burden of proof on the accused. It is often a total catch-22. If you defend yourself, you are guilty of calling a woman a liar and denying the structural problems that the #MeToo movement is addressing. Everything you say will be used against you (as every part of this text will be used against me, I am sure). But if you don’t deny the accusations, you are guilty by default. An email with false allegations from the accuser to employers or potential employers is enough to cast a shadow of unwarranted suspicion over the accused, which then induces in colleagues fear of guilt by association. 

So what can we do? We must stand by the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”. Every workplace has a responsibility not only to carefully investigate allegations of harassment or sexual harassment and take the necessary measures, but also to take into account testimonies in favor of the accused. In my case, my employer’s external investigator carried out an inadequate investigation that was deficient in both objectivity and evaluation of evidence, something that has caused me great harm till this day. Don’t assume that the person being accused is guilty. And don’t cling to that assumption if the outcome of the investigation does not prove their guilt. As a fellow worker, colleague or friend, have the courage not to buy into loose accusations. Have the civil courage not to freeze out, “cancel” the accused person or give in to the lynch mob.

Umut Ozkirimli

Here I recount how I am falsely accused of harassment/sexual harassment by a colleague with whom I had an intimate relationship and the harm that this causes me. Please read it if you want my side of the story.