A senior Air India executive was today awarded £85,000 libel damages – plus about £500,000 legal costs – over newspaper allegations that he was a serial sex pest.
Ashvini Kumar Sharma, a former army captain who was once aide-de-camp to the President of India, said that the “grossly defamatory and fundamentally false” front-page article in the London Evening Standard in August 2006 had damaged both his reputation and his health.
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After an eight-day trial at the High Court in London, a jury of six men and six women returned a verdict that the newspaper had failed to prove that the words complained of were substantially true.
Mr Justice Eady granted a stay on payment of the damages and costs pending a possible application by the newspaper for permission to appeal.
After the verdict, Sharma said: “I am delighted to have been totally vindicated. There was not a shred of truth in any of the allegations made against me.
“This is exactly what I said on the day the article was published. I am extremely grateful to my legal team and to the jury and the justice process of this country.”
Sharma said that, ironically, he had since been promoted to the post of an executive director of Air India at its Mumbai headquarters.
Captain Sharma’s counsel, Ian Winter QC, had told the court that the allegations led to his being shunned in the UK, the country he had wanted to make his home with his wife of 25 years and two grown-up children.
Just before his successful four-year tenure as the airline’s Heathrow-based director for UK and Europe was due to end, he was told by police that there had been a complaint from a female ground services employee, but the investigation was concluded with no charges brought.
When he read the Evening Standard article, headed “Sex Shame of Airline Chief”, he was devastated.
“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,” said Mr Winter.
The newspaper story could only mean that Captain 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.
Associated Newspapers and journalist Amar Singh argued that the article did not mean that 53-year-old Captain Sharma was guilty of criminal conduct, but that he exploited his position to prey on vulnerable females.
The publishers accepted that Captain Sharma was not called upon to step down and did not resign his post, which had expired naturally and led to his promotion.
But they called witnesses in a bid to prove that Captain Sharma sexually harassed six women, aged between 18 and their early 30s, who were described as being “within or near the bottom rung of their employment”.
The jury was told that the case was about “the conduct of a powerful man in and out of the workplace in relation to junior women workers”.