Several Palestine solidarity organisations and activists have condemned the South Africa branch of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for its “inaction” in the face of sexual harassment allegations against its director.
US academic Sang Hea Kil alleged that Muhammed Desai, cofounder and director of BDS-SA, sexually harassed her and two other women on March 21 while she was visiting Johannesburg to attend a conference on Palestine.
BDS-SA is an NGO and affiliate of the BDS movement that advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli businesses, universities and artists.
On behalf of the women, the conference organiser – the American Middle East Diaspora (AMED) – the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC), and several of the attendees sent a list of demands to the board of BDS-SA in a letter on March 24.
The demands included an urgent and unconditional apology from Desai, the launch of a commission of inquiry into the allegations levelled against him, and the suspension of Desai from all positions and functions in BDS-SA until the investigation is completed.
Kil and her supporters said little has been done in response to the accusations, leaving them disappointed but adamant to take further action.
“Feelings from the group are that the complainants are not being taken seriously and that there is no desire from the board of BDS-SA to deal with the issue seriously,” Mahlatse Mpya, AMEC’s media coordinator, told Al Jazeera.
Mpya said Desai has since continued his work at BDS-SA, speaking at a rally outside the US consulate and participating in a meeting with former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda on April 6, as shown in a BDS-SA statement.
Kil, an associate professor in justice studies at San Jose State University in California, said BDS-SA has not contacted her and to her knowledge has not taken steps to investigate Desai.
“Desai sexually harassed three women, including myself, in front of almost 10 witnesses in one night. There are no false allegations here, there are only three women who are seeking justice and want BDS-SA to change how their organisation and director treats women,” Kil told Al Jazeera.
The allegations come on the back of a shocking scandal that has hit the NGO sector in South Africa after an investigation by the Mail&Guardian into Doron Isaacs, founder of South African civil society organisation Equal Education, revealed a culture of sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation.
In a statement sent to BDS-SA on March 25, Kil detailed the events of March 21, saying she encountered Desai and another BDS-SA employee near a restaurant in Melville, Johannesburg. Several international delegates attending the Palestine conference had met there for dinner.
According to Kil, Desai, who joined her table at the restaurant, repeatedly made unwanted physical advances, including squeezing her shoulders, despite Kil’s explicit rejection of his advances.
There are no false allegations. There are only three women who are seeking justice and want BDS-SA to change how their organisation and director treats women.
At one point, Kil said she left the table in an attempt to get away from Desai, who, according to her, was “drunk, loud and disruptive”.
She said Desai followed her outside and “attempted more sloppy high-fives with me, and I realised at that point that this was his way to touch my body with the high-fives that I could not meet with my hand and that landed on my body.”
After returning, Kil said Desai placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her an unwanted massage. Kil said fellow scholar and activist Lara Sheehi intervened at one point by “literally using her body to block Muhammed Desai from further molesting me.”
According to Sheehi, an American psychologist, while Desai was obnoxious and loud with everyone, he “took a particular approach with Sang that was intrusive”.
“She (Kil) told me on several instances that she was uncomfortable and on three occasions I helped her separate herself from him,” Sheehi said.
Despite their efforts, which included involving others, including Sheehi’s husband, to engage Desai, he kept pursuing Kil, she added.
After bringing the issue to the attention of the conference organisers, a meeting was arranged with BDS-SA on the evening of March 23, two days after the incident. The complainants and several individual delegates from the conference met Desai and two other BDS-SA board members.
According to Kil, the three alleged victims confronted Desai, demanding an apology, but he brushed them off.
“He repeatedly took no personal responsibility for his actions in that meeting after hearing all three women tell him about what he did that night,” said Kil. “His lack of discourse or engagement was rather shocking.”
Naeem Jeenah, executive director of AMEC and the main point of contact between the women and BDS-SA, confirmed these details to Al Jazeera, adding the two other BDS-SA members promised to consult the board and respond.
The response came on March 27 in a brief statement issued by BDS-SA noting the allegations against Desai. The statement was not sent directly to the women, nor their supporting organisations, according to AMEC.
Kil said in her statement that following this she decided to file criminal charges with the South Africa police, having “realised his intentions were to avoid responsibility for his behaviour”.
Kil listed the offences against Desai as “indecent assault” and “sexual harassment”.
Desai issued a statement earlier this month denying the allegations. He said the “docket was closed with the reason provided as ‘false case’,” and he threatened to take legal action for the publication of what he described as “libellous claims”.
“The allegations made against me are baseless, contrived and defamatory. I, my family, friends, and close comrades have had to endure the brunt of these false allegations,” he wrote.
Kil responded by hiring legal representation. She said she has not received any contact from the police since filing the charges, and is unaware of where the case is at.
Charlene May, a lawyer at the Women’s Legal Centre and Kil’s legal representative, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday they have made inquiries with South African police to find out where the case is at.
“We certainly don’t have any information to say that the case has been closed, nor do we have information to say that it has not been closed,” May told Al Jazeera.
‘Women’s issues are Palestine issues’
In a second statement issued by BDS-SA on April 3, the organisation noted Desai’s denial of the allegations and reiterated his claim that the case had been closed by the authorities.
Saying the group “treat accusations of such very seriously”, BDS-SA promised to initiate an independent investigation into the allegations on Monday to be concluded within a month, followed by a report.
Al Jazeera approached Desai and members of the board of BDS-SA several times for comment on the accusations and investigation. No response was received by the time of publication.
Several South African organisations and individuals, separate to those who worked with Kil to communicate her demands to BDS-SA, have since expressed concern over the issue.
In a statement on April 4, the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy distanced itself from BDS-SA over the reports and called on the organisation to launch an investigation.
“We believe in the indivisibility of struggles. That is we believe that the struggle for women’s human rights are not inferior to the struggle for Palestinian freedom,” it said.
A statement issued on April 8 on behalf several Palestine solidarity groups called on “organisations with a commitment to Palestinian solidarity and gender justice to actively distance themselves from the position adopted by BDS-SA”.
They condemned the lack of a victim-centred approach and criticised BDS-SA’s “silence on the demand that Desai be suspended pending a full inquiry”.