A federal jury in Boston awarded $3.5 million Wednesday to a former visiting scholar at Harvard University who brought a libel suit against a mother and daughter who had publicly accused the academic of fabricating her credentials, even attending scientific conferences to besmirch her reputation.
Saudi Arabian scientist Hayat Sindi sobbed when the jury announced its verdict in US District Court, said her lawyer David H. Rich.
“We’re thrilled and relieved,” Rich said in a telephone interview. “All she’s ever wanted is, frankly, to be left alone.”
Sindi sued Samia El-Moslimany and her mother, Ann, three years ago, saying the women had engaged in a campaign to “publicly embarrass, humiliate, and destroy” her by spreading lies about her on the Internet, through social media, and in e-mails to her professional associates.
Rich said the verdict shows the Moslimanys’ comments about Sindi were false. The decision, the attorney said, means his client can now resume efforts to promote science and entrepreneurship among young people in the Middle East. That work, Rich said, had been derailed by the Moslimanys’ defamatory statements.
“It’s about being able to say clearly and powerfully that what has been written . . . is untrue and a jury has so concluded and awarded millions of dollars of damages as a result thereof,” he said.
The Moslimanys and their lawyer, George R. White Jr., did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Samia Moslimany lives in Saudi Arabia. Her mother lives in Washington state.
The dispute stemmed from allegations that Sindi began having an affair with Samia Moslimany’s husband, Fouad Dehlawi, after the couple invited her to spend Thanksgiving with them in Seattle nearly six years ago.
Sindi, who has a residence in Boston, denied having a romantic relationship with Dehlawi and argued the Moslimanys targeted her for revenge over a liaison that never existed.
Accusations arising from the alleged affair have also been litigated in Saudi Arabian courts. But US District Judge Indira Talwani, who presided over the libel case, ruled jurors in Boston could not hear details from the overseas case, court records show.
Sindi’s lawsuit said the women’s comments had undermined her attempt to launch an institute to promote entrepreneurship and social innovation among scientists, technologists, and engineers in the Middle East and made some professional colleagues question her trustworthiness.
The false statements attributed to the Moslimanys in the suit included claims Sindi bought or plagiarized her doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge in England, exaggerated her role in the development of a diagnostic tool pioneered at a Harvard laboratory, and told others she was younger than she was.
Sindi’s lawyers said the Moslimanys sometimes traveled to conferences she participated in and distributed fliers that listed websites containing false information about the scientist.
The jury found that the Moslimanys defamed Sindi, interfered with her contractual relationships, and hampered her attempts to forge business opportunities, court records show.
The 12-person panel also decided both women caused Sindi emotional distress, but ruled that only the emotional distress imposed by Samia Moslimany resulted in monetary damages, according to the verdict slip.
One witness who testified was Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, court records show.
In an affidavit filed in 2012, Ito wrote that Sindi had approached him about collaborating with her nonprofit, the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity. But he reconsidered working with her after receiving e-mails from Ann Moslimany and another person.
Both e-mails said Sindi misrepresented her scientific and professional achievements, the affidavit said.
At trial, Rich said, Ito testified he backed away from collaborating with Sindi because he did not want to investigate the claims, fearing it would take too much time, which he called “my most valuable commodity.”
The Moslimanys counter that Sindi’s institute ran into problems because she mismanaged its finances, lacked the experience needed to lead the organization, and was difficult to get along with, court papers say.
In an interview before the trial began July 11, Samia Moslimany said Sindi’s supposed misrepresentation of her credentials stood to threaten advances for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where women have male guardians and are prohibited from driving.
She also asserted that Sindi and Dehlawi planned to wed under laws permitting polygamous marriages in Saudi Arabia, but insisted that did not motivate her actions.
“The worst thing that could happen is for us to give ammunition to elements of Saudi society that don’t want women to be in leadership positions,” said Moslimany, who described herself as a longtime advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. “I was never fighting for my man.”
Rich said he is considering asking the judge to order the Moslimanys to stop making defamatory statements about Sindi. Her lawsuit, he said, was never about money.
“This case was always about having this stop,” Rich said.