The defamation lawsuit’s origins go back to a Thanksgiving gathering nearly six years ago. Fouad Dehlawi and his wife, Samia El-Moslimany, invited a visiting scholar at Harvard University to spend the holiday with them in Seattle, The Boston Globe reports.
The scholar, Saudi Arabian scientist and entrepreneur Hayat Sindi, accepted the invitation and spent Thanksgiving with the couple and their family. Months later, Moslimany, 52, said Sindi and Dehlawi began having an affair, a claim Sindi denies.
What happened next has been litigated in courts from Saudi Arabia to Boston, where a trial is scheduled to begin Monday in a defamation suit brought by Sindi against Moslimany and her 78-year-old mother, Ann, who lives in Washington state.
The suit, filed in US District Court in Boston, alleges the mother and daughter engaged in a campaign to “publicly embarrass, humiliate, and destroy” Sindi by spreading lies about her on the Internet, through social media, and in e-mails to her professional associates.
Sindi, who has a residence in Boston, claims the women slandered her by falsely stating that she bought or plagiarized her doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge in England, lied about her age, and exaggerated her role in the development of a diagnostic tool pioneered at a Harvard laboratory, the suit says.
She also claims the Moslimanys traveled to conferences she participated in and distributed flyers that listed websites containing false information about Sindi.
One casualty of the women’s comments, court papers say, was the i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, a nonprofit established by Sindi in 2012 to promote entrepreneurship and social innovation among scientists, technologists, and engineers in the Middle East.
As statements the Moslimanys made about Sindi spread, the lawsuit says scheduled speakers at i2 Institute events canceled appearances, the organization’s board of directors quit, and funding evaporated.
The Moslimanys counter that the institute ran into problems because Sindi mismanaged its finances, lacked the experience needed to lead the organization, and was difficult to get along with, court papers say.
A document filed in Suffolk Superior Court in 2013 said Sindi wants $10 million in damages, but the suit was later moved to federal court, where she has not specified how much she seeks from the jury.
In a telephone interview Saturday, Samia El-Moslimany denied Sindi’s defamation claims and said the libel case represents only some aspects of a dispute that has unfolded against the backdrop of a Saudi Arabian society that gives women far fewer rights than their American counterparts.
“She has been using the US court system to try to shut me up or anyone who has criticized her or looked into her background,” Moslimany said.
She said Sindi and Dehlawi planned to marry under laws permitting polygamous marriages in Saudi Arabia. Such a move would have been devastating financially and emotionally, Moslimany said.
“The first wife has no options,” said Moslimany, who is a citizen of the United States and Saudi Arabia. She said she lives in Saudi Arabia. “Your whole entire life changes radically.”
David H. Rich, an attorney for Sindi, said a court order prohibits him and Sindi from commenting. But in court papers, Sindi denied the marriage accusation and said she is being targeted for revenge over a liaison that never existed.
Dehlawi and Moslimany are divorced under Islamic law, but do not have a civil divorce, Moslimany said. Court records say Dehlawi lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Moslimany said she is a photographer and longtime advocate for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where women have male guardians and are prohibited from driving.
She acknowledged writing to members of the i2 Institute board but said her actions were not an attempt to save her marriage.
Rather, Moslimany said Sindi has misrepresented herself to the public and thereby made herself a target for opponents of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Those foes may point to Sindi’s alleged fabrications as evidence that women should not hold prominent positions, she said.
Sindi has received several high-profile appointments, including a seat on the Shura Council, a consultative body in the Saudi monarchy, and positions with the United Nations.
“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,” Moslimany said. “I was never fighting for my man.”
Sindi and Moslimany are expected to testify at trial. Four years ago, they battled in a Saudi Arabian court over accusations arising from the alleged affair between Sindi and Dehlawi, court records show.
Moslimany said she began researching Sindi’s background after Sindi initiated the Saudi legal action against her. The resulting decision found both women at fault — Sindi for engaging in an “illicit relationship and exchanging love messages” with Dehlawi, and Moslimany for libeling Sindi by publicly disclosing the relationship on social media.
The ruling sentenced Moslimany to jail for four days while ordering Sindi to spend two months locked up, according to the decision, which was filed in federal court. Neither women has served her sentence, Moslimany said.
US District Judge Indira Talwani, who is overseeing the trial, has ruled that jurors in Boston cannot hear evidence from the Saudi case. Moslimany said she hopes the jury exonerates her.
“I feel very strongly that I should be able to speak the truth,” she said. “I have not been defamatory.”