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2020.03.29 14:00

#MeToo: four cases that shook Lithuania

Julija Šakytė, LRT.lt2020.03.29 14:00

A 23-year prison sentence for the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has closed a chapter in the #MeToo movement which reverberated across the world, including Lithuania.

#MeToo, a movement of women who refused to put up with sexual harassment, was started by the civil rights activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, but it picked up momentum after a series of women came out with accusations against Weinstein in 2017.

Read more: Women's rights march in Kaunas demands action on gender violence

The Weinstein case triggered a wave of sexual harassment stories across the world, including Lithuania, and contributed to changing the culture for the better, says Laima Vengalė-Dits, a lawyer with the Lithuanian Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson's Office.

Since the Weinstein scandal began, the equal opportunities office, charged with fighting discrimination in the Lithuania, has been getting more enquiries from women asking whether the situations they've experienced constitute sexual harassment, Vengalė-Dits tells LRT.lt.

“The #MeToo movement raised awareness. I think that people became more responsible about their actions. Potential harassers are more careful [about what they do],” she says. “Women, too, who have suffered [from sexual harassment] have become bolder, I think.”

The women have also been asking how they should react. However, the office didn't see an increase in complaints. In 2019, for example, there were eight enquiries about sexual harassment and only two official complaints, according to Vengalė-Dits.

On the other hand, more victims of workplace abuse go straight to their employers rather than file complaints with the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson's Office or go to court.

“Employers now come to us [for consultations]. They investigate situations themselves, set up commissions,” Vengalė-Dits says. “It is a very commendable practice.”

Below are some of the #MeToo stories that shook Lithuania in recent years.

Read more: Lithuania drops nine spots in WEF's gender equality index

Linas Marijus Zaikauskas, the former director of Panevėžys Juozas Miltinis Theatre

The theatre director was accused of psychological violence by a young actor. The woman said Zaikauskas used his position to demand sexual favours from her.

Instead of consenting, she went public with the story, sparking one of the first #MeToo scandals in Lithuania.

The actor turned to the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson and the office's investigation led to conviction, one of very few that haven't been overturned by higher courts, Vengalė-Dits says.

In most cases, proving sexual harassment is challenging for lack of evidence or witnesses refusing to testify, she says. “In this case, we had evidence, a voice recording. It helped us prove the truth,” according to Vengalė-Dits.

A court found Zaikauskas guilty of sexual harassment and sentenced him to 44 days in prison. He was also ordered to pay 3,100 euros in damages to the actor.

Kęstutis Pūkas, politician

Former parliament member Kęstutis Pūkas was caught up in a #MeToo scandal after young women started sharing their experiences of being interviewed for assistant jobs.

The women said Pūkas made comments about their chests, suggested they would have to work in his bedroom and made sexual remarks.

Once the stories were picked up by the media, Pūkas said he was sorry if his actions offended anyone, but did not admit to any wrongdoing.

However, Pūkas' misconduct cost him his seat in parliament. Even before the Seimas could vote on stripping him of his mandate, the MP resigned in January 2018.

Moreover, Lithuania's Supreme Court ruled last February to uphold the politician's conviction for sexual harassment.

Read more: Lithuanian court upholds sexual harassment ruling against ex-MP

The Pūkas case is one of only two instances in Lithuania where a sexual harassment investigation led to actual sanctions, says Jūratė Juškaitė of the Lithuanian Human Rights Centre.

Interestingly, he was convicted only for harassing his assistants, but not the women who were applying for the position.

“[The court] said that, if it had happened after 2017 when the Labour Code was amended, Pūkas would have probably been found guilty of the other cases of harassment, too,” Juškaitė says.

Jonas Vaitkus, theatre director

Jonas Vaitkus, the then artistic director of the Russian Drama Theatre in Vilnius, was accused of sexual harassment by a set designer in 2018.

The woman said she was abused by Vaitkus in summer 2009 when he invited her to his home to discuss business – designing a set for one of the theatre's productions. The director was allegedly drunk and made inappropriate advances.

After the story became public, other women came forward. Vaitkus' former assistant and his students at the Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy also accused the director of improper behaviour.

Vaitkus rejected the accusations, claiming they were part of a coordinated smear campaign against him by Russia. His term at the Russian Drama Theatre was coming to an end, Vaitkus claimed, and the Kremlin was reluctant to have him re-appointed for the position.

The Music and Theatre Academy later investigated Vaitkus' conduct with students and decided that he violated academic ethics. In 2020, he left his position at the Russian Drama Theatre.

Šarūnas Bartas, filmmaker

The acclaimed filmmaker Šarūnas Bartas was accused of sexual harassment in 2017 by two women who worked for him. One of them filed a complaint with the police.

Bartas also rejected the accusations and went completely silent, fencing himself off from all discussions that raged in the public space.

However, the controversy had not fizzled out by late 2019 when, after releasing a new film, Bartas was photographed for the cover of one of Lithuania's biggest celebrity magazines.

Some observers and activists accused the media – including LRT.lt, which ran an interview with him – for letting Bartas off easily and failing to question him about the sexual harassment allegations.

The end of it?

Will the end of the Weinstein trial take the wind out of the #MeToo movement? In Juškaitė's opinion, there are two sides to the story.

“On the one hand, [Weinstein's conviction] will give confidence to victims of sexual harassment or violence to speak,” she tells LRT.lt. “However, the process was not altogether smooth. [...] It is hard to say how all this will change public opinion. I'd like to believe that an actual punishment is a sign that there's more justice now.”

The scandal laid bare the culture that has allowed sexual harassment of women to continue, she says.

Vengalė-Dits, the lawyer with the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, notes that Lithuania's anti-discrimination laws ban sexual harassment at work, but not in the provision of goods and services.

The office has drafted a bill, suggesting to include an explicit ban on sexual harassment involving clients and service providers into anti-discrimination laws.

“It would protect the service provider or the buyer from sexual harassment in a cafe, bar or shop,” Vengalė-Dits explains.

In Lithuania, the laws could be improved to make proving sexual harassment in court easier, Juškaitė believes.

“There have been very few cases in Lithuania of publicised workplace sexual harassment where victims turned to the [law enforcement] institutions,” she says. “Court decisions are even fewer. So we can hardly say there was breakthrough.”