In a setback for the global #MeToo movement, a former member of Austria’s parliament was convicted this month of libel against a man she publicly accused of sexually harassing her on Facebook.
In an unprecedented case, a judge at the Regional Court for Criminal Matters in Vienna ruled that Green Party politician Sigrid Maurer libeled the owner of a city craft beer store because she couldn’t prove that he actually posted the harassing messages on his Facebook account.
In March, Maurer, 33, an advocate for women's rights, received obscene Facebook messages from the account of the owner of the store, where she walks by frequently.
Maurer posted the messages on Facebook and Twitter, including his name and the store's name. "There was no other way to defend myself," she said.
Maurer posted the messages after her lawyers said she could not sue for public sexual assault because the messages were private.
Her posts went viral, and the store owner said he subsequently became the target of online and personal verbal assaults, including death threats, and his store received negative reviews.
The man sued Maurer for libel, claiming he didn't write the harassing messages. All of his customers have access to the computer in his shop, including his Facebook profile, he testified.
In issuing his ruling against Maurer, Judge Stefan Apostol said he didn't believe the man and found Maurer’s reasons for her posts “respectable,” even though she had no evidence that he was the perpetrator of the abuse.
Maurer vowed to appeal the ruling, which would force her to pay a $3,500 fine and $4,600 in compensation to the store owner if upheld. She said the dispute was a "unique case of victim-perpetrator conversion.”
Women's rights activists called the verdict a disheartening setback for those combating sexual harassment. “This case clearly shows that women are on their own in Austria when it comes to hate messages,” said Schifteh Hashemi, spokeswoman for a petition drive aimed at improving working conditions of women that include equal pay. “They have no chance to defend themselves.”
The beer store's owner, whose name can remain private under Austrian law, may yet receive punishment if an investigation finds he gave false testimony. The judge asked government prosecutors to look into the case. If he is found to have lied, he could face three years in jail.