Montreal

McGill University professor sues student and colleague for $600K

Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, an Islamic Studies professor, claims he is the victim of a 'smear campaign'

July 06, 2018

Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim claims there was an organized campaign to have him fired from his job at McGill, after he had what he says was a consensual relationship with a student. (McGill University)

A McGill University professor has filed a $600,000 lawsuit against a student and a fellow professor for what he calls a "ruthless campaign" that destroyed his reputation and his right to privacy.

Ibrahim, an assistant professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies, believes his reputation and job prospects have been destroyed. (McGill University)

In a court filing obtained by CBC News, Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, an assistant professor in the Institute for Islamic Studies, says the allegations have made him a "pariah" in his academic field, ruining his job prospects at McGill and other universities in North America.

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Ibrahim, who specializes in Islamic law, says he engaged in a consensual relationship with a McGill student between the spring of 2014 and April 2015.

He says after the relationship ended, rumours about his alleged behaviour spread. Nearly a year later, the lawsuit claims Ibrahim became aware that students were organizing so he would not get tenure.

The lawsuit alleges student Sarah Abdelshamy and assistant professor Pasha Khan, who also works at the Institute of Islamic Studies, had a "vendetta" against him, and were behind a "smear campaign" to have him fired.

Ibrahim is suing Abdelshamy and Khan for defamation.

"He is now considered a sexual abuser, a harasser, a rapist and a shady individual when, in fact, all he ever did was have a consensual relationship with a student," the lawsuit says.

None of the allegations contained in the lawsuit have been proven in court.

Alleged campaign to get him fired

According to the court filing, Ibrahim taught Abdelshamy in the winter of 2017.

While the lawsuit says she is not the student Ibrahim had a relationship with, it claims Abdelshamy was upset during one of his classes about a debate on Islamophobia following the Quebec City mosque shooting in January 2017, which left six men dead.

McGill student Sarah Abdelshamy is named in the $600,000 lawsuit, which claims she spread rumours about Ibrahim that ruined his career. (Facebook)

Following that, Abdelshamy wrote an article in the student newspaper about the incident and started a petition to get Ibrahim fired, the lawsuits alleges.

The lawsuit also claims Abdelshamy allegedly made defamatory remarks about Ibrahim at a meeting about McGill's new sexual violence policy.

That fall, stickers started appearing in McGill bathrooms alleging that Ibrahim was a sexual predator. Similar allegations were also made in McGill's student newspaper.

Although the messages were posted by an anonymous group on campus called ZeroTolerance McGill, the lawsuit claims "there is a very high probability" that Abdelshamy was behind them. 

The court filing claims another student informed Ibrahim that Khan had accused him of inappropriate behaviour. The student provided Ibrahim with defamatory emails and detailed notes following a meeting with Khan.

The lawsuit alleges Khan repeatedly warned female students to stay away from Ibrahim to avoid being subjected to sexually inappropriate behaviour.

It also states Ibrahim "was depicted as someone who manipulated young women into sleeping with him."

Unable to defend himself, lawsuit alleges

Although Ibrahim was aware rumours were circulating about him, he initially did not know who was behind them, the lawsuit states.

Ibrahim says he saw the defendants "splatter his private life all over the public sphere by questioning his sexual conduct and his sexual behaviour."

Ibrahim's lawsuit also accuses McGill assistant professor Pasha Khan of damaging his reputation. (Facebook)

The lawsuit says Ibrahim's personal relationships are no one's business and should not been brought into his place of employment or affect his tenure review process.

In May, Ibrahim learned his tenure application was denied and he'd have to leave McGill at the end of his contract. He believes this decision was heavily influenced by what he claims are "baseless" allegations.

The lawsuit claims both Abdelshamy and Khan set out to destroy his career and future employment in his field.

"This was the admitted goal of their vendetta," the court filing says.

Epidemic of #metoo complaints, Ibrahim's lawyer says

Ibrahim is being represented by lawyer Julius Grey.

Grey wouldn't comment on the case specifically, but he said an epidemic of #metoo complaints has gone too far.

He said people are being tried and convicted in the court of public opinion with little to no evidence and without a hearing. 

"It means people, their careers, [and the] whole essence of what they've achieved is snuffed out very quickly," said Grey, who also pointed out that these accusations can then live online forever.

Lawyer Julius Grey, who is representing Ibrahim, would not comment on the case, but he said he believes many people are being tried in the court of public opinion with little to no evidence. (CBC)

He said institutions need to do a better job at setting out a code of conduct on how professors should behave, including avoiding intimate relationships with students, or at the very least, reporting them.

This set of guidelines should also detail how professors should act at faculty events, like parties, Grey said.

Defendants decline to comment

CBC News was unable to reach Khan or his lawyer on Wednesday.

Abdelshamy declined to be interviewed, referring CBC to her lawyer, Audrey Boctor.

Boctor did not want to comment on the specific allegations, but said: "We will defend our client's right to denounce conduct she deems inappropriate in a university setting."

She said they would also be fighting for other students' rights.

Boctor said she is concerned a case like this can have a chilling effect on other students who may now be too scared to speak up for fear of legal repercussions.

In an email to CBC News, a McGill spokesperson said the university does not comment on matters that are before the courts.

McGill students' society condemns lawsuit

In a statement released yesterday, the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) strongly condemned the lawsuit, throwing its support behind Abdelshamy and Khan.

"It is blatant intimidation in response to the ability of students to speak out and protect each other from sexual violence when our institution has failed us repeatedly," the statement reads.

The student union blames McGill for a climate in which students don't feel comfortable bringing their complaints to the administration.

Last April, hundreds of students staged a walkout to protest what they claimed was the university's "continued failure to hold predatory teaching staff accountable for their actions."

The protest followed an open letter from student leaders at McGill, alleging the school had not done enough to address complaints against at least five professors in the Faculty of Arts over allegations of "abusive" behaviour and sexual violence.

At the time, nearly 150 professors at the university came out in support of the student union.

In May, McGill University responded to the concerns, appointing a special investigator to look into all reports of sexual violence or sexual misconduct.

McGill's investigation will start in the fall.

As well, the work of an ad hoc committee is already underway to look into policies concerning professor-student relationships. It's set to deliver its conclusions by December 1st.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Hendry

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates.

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