Strauss-Kahn awaits grand jury from prison island

17th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn woke Tuesday in New York's notoriously tough Rikers Island jail while prosecutors sought grand jury approval for bringing him to trial on sex assault charges.

The French politician and head of the International Monetary Fund was transferred to Rikers after a judge refused him bail in his first court appearance Monday, saying he might try to escape to France.

The crucial next steps in legal proceedings deciding the powerful figure's fate were happening behind closed doors in Manhattan, a short distance, but a world away from the grim prison island in the East River.

A grand jury is to convene to decide whether there is enough evidence in the accusations that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a chambermaid at the Sofitel hotel in Times Square. Grand jury proceedings are secret and a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney's office would not comment on progress.

Already, though, the bottom has fallen out of Strauss-Kahn's world.

Until Saturday, when the alleged assault took place in his luxury Sofitel suite, the silver-haired Frenchman was a global VIP, enjoying a glamorous lifestyle and dealing with the world's most powerful leaders. He was also widely seen as the man who could unseat President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 elections.

Now he is accused of a sickening attempt to force himself on an immigrant maid who allegedly entered his 28th floor room to clean, then found herself chased and assaulted by a naked man. He faces a long prison sentence if convicted.

In France, Strauss-Kahn continues to enjoy some backing from supporters circulating conspiracy theories that he may have been set up. Many others have chosen to remain silent on the hugely embarrassing affair.

However on Tuesday, Prime Minister Francois Fillon was quoted saying there could be "no excuse" if the allegations were true. It would be "a very serious act," he said.

Fillon was the most senior French politician to be quoted explicitly outlining a position on the alleged crime.

Elsewhere in Europe, senior figures also began to distance themselves from the fallen star.

As lobbying grew on possible replacements for Strauss-Kahn at the head of the IMF, Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter openly called on him to resign.

"Given the refusal to grant him bail, he must think about the damage he's causing to the institution" by not resigning, she said.

Spain's Finance Minister Elena Salgado said the alleged crimes "are extraordinarily serious."

Strauss-Kahn has denied all accusations and his lawyers promise a "vigorous" defense.

In remarks at Monday's bail hearing the chief line of defense centered on assertions that Strauss-Kahn did not try to flee the country, as alleged, and that immediately after the time of the alleged crime he went to have lunch.

This, lawyers say, indicates that he had nothing to hide and was not in a panic, as police and prosecutors have suggested.

Another possible defense, the New York Post tabloid reports, is that he may have had a consensual sexual encounter with the alleged victim. The Post quoted a "source close to the defense" saying "there may well have been consent."

In court, lawyer Ben Brafman said that the evidence "will not be consistent with a forcible encounter," but he did not elaborate and did not suggest consent. Prosecutors, however, say they have physical evidence, including a doctor's exam made immediately after the incident, indicating attempted rape.

On Tuesday, William Taylor, another defense attorney, would not confirm the Post story. "I don't have any comment. I don't even know who that is," he said, referring to the "source."

The alleged victim, said by police to be a black woman aged 32, lives in a working class neighborhood of the Bronx. She has not yet spoken in public.

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper on Tuesday quoted her brother as saying she was "a hard-working woman who is just a victim. She is a wonderful west African immigrant who just wants to work hard."

The brother told the Mail that on the day of the alleged assault, "She rang me and she said: 'Somebody has done something really bad to me. I've been attacked.'"

"She was crying all the time," the brother was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, Strauss-Kahn faces other sex allegations in France where journalist Tristane Banon was preparing to file a complaint regarding an alleged 2002 attack in which she says Strauss-Kahn acted like a "rutting chimpanzee."

Apparently this was the incident referred to by prosecutor John McConnell in court on Monday when he said he was looking into "reports he has in fact engaged in conduct similar to the conduct alleged in this complaint on at least one other occasion."

McConnell said this incident was "abroad."

© 2011 AFP

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