Strauss-Kahn a free man after case dropped

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Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a free man Tuesday after a US judge dismissed all sex crime charges, ending a three-month saga that captivated the world and turned French politics on its head.

Judge Michael Obus took just a few minutes to approve a request by prosecutors to abandon their case, which they said was untenable given constant lying by the hotel maid who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.

There was a last-minute delay while an appeals court considered an attempt by the maid's lawyer to have a special prosecutor take over the flailing investigation. The moment the court denied the appeal, Strauss-Kahn was free.

The 62-year-old looked visibly relieved as he left the building accompanied by his millionaire French wife Anne Sinclair, who has stood firmly by his side ever since the sensational sex scandal erupted in May.

"This is the end of a terrible and unjust ordeal," Strauss-Kahn told reporters outside of his upscale temporary residence in Lower Manhattan.

"I'm eager to return to my country, but first there are a few small things I need to do before leaving," Strauss-Kahn said, pledging to speak at "greater length" once back in France.

An unusual earthquake hit the eastern US seaboard, prompting building evacuations in New York just as Manhattan's top elected prosecutor, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, was to address the waiting media.

Television footage captured the shaking before Vance began his statement, and officials and media rushed for the exit. The New York prosecution team was expected to release a statement and not resume the press conference.

Strauss-Kahn said he was "relieved" for his wife, children and "everyone who has supported me at this time by sending me letters and emails."

"They should know that their support has been very significant," he said. In a separate written statement, the one-time front-runner for the French presidency called the legal saga a "nightmare."

The international banker will recover his passport on Wednesday, as offices were closed due to the earthquake, his lawyer said.

Cars were seen outside Strauss-Kahn's apartment, apparently ready to whisk the Frenchman away, but there was no word on his next move.

Even if he returns to France, Strauss-Kahn's reputation has been badly sullied by an affair that forced him to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund and put his French presidential dreams on hold.

Demonstrators, many of them women, hurled slogans outside of the courtroom. One, referring to Strauss-Kahn by the initials by which he is known in France, shouted: "DSK, you're a sick bastard and your wife is even sicker."

Prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said she did not take the decision to drop the sex crime charges "lightly."

"The defendant engaged in a horrid sexual encounter with the defendant," she said, but added that the accuser, 32-year-old chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo, had "severely undermined her reliability as a witness in this case."

The sensational case garnered world attention on May 14 when Strauss-Kahn was escorted by New York police from his first class seat on an Air France plane moments before its departure for Paris.

The case began to unravel weeks later when prosecutors announced that Diallo had been caught lying on her asylum application form, including about a gang rape she had suffered back home in Guinea.

She was also said to have discussed Strauss-Kahn's wealth in a telephone conversation with a Guinean friend currently held in a US prison, and to have changed sworn testimony to the grand jury considering the case.

In their 25-page motion filed Monday asking the judge to dismiss all charges, prosecutors said Diallo was "persistently, and at times inexplicably, untruthful in describing matters of both great and small significance."

"The nature and number of the complainant's falsehoods leave us unable to credit her version of events beyond a reasonable doubt, whatever the truth may be about the encounter" at the hotel, they added.

Although there was initial forensic and medical evidence suggesting a forcible encounter, the assistant district attorneys handling the case, Illuzzi-Orbon and John McConnell, said their motion made no factual findings.

In a "he-said, she-said" case, a jury needs to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt and, legal experts say, Diallo's credibility on the witness stand was likely to have been weakened beyond repair.

Diallo, wearing black trousers and a beige jacket, and flanked by several hulking private security guards, said nothing after the case.

In an interview last month, Diallo recounted the incident, saying Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from a shower to "grab my breasts" and despite her pleas, forced her head down to his penis.

He could now in theory return to frontline French politics, but no one back in France is expecting a prominent role.

"I don't think he can hope for a center stage role in French politics now," said Gerard Grunberg of the prestigious Sciences-Po school in Paris, where Strauss-Kahn once taught.

"His public image is much deteriorated, and the Socialist Party and its leaders must be mad at him for having missed this moment of opportunity. Neither the public nor the party want to see him back on the frontline."

© 2011 AFP

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