IMF chief to face NY court in sex assault case


  • World
  • Monday, 16 May 2011

NEW YORK (Reuters) - IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn makes his first appearance in court on Monday since being accused of trying to rape a hotel maid in a case that sent shockwaves through French politics and left the IMF in turmoil.

A handcuffed and drained Strauss-Kahn, whose hopes of becoming France's next president appear to have been wrecked, was seen in public for the first time since his arrest when he was taken to the booking station at Manhattan Criminal Court on Sunday night.

His lawyers said he would plead not guilty to charges of a criminal sexual act, unlawful imprisonment and attempted rape that could bring a humiliating end to his public career and political ambitions.

"Our client willingly consented to a scientific and forensic examination ...," said William Taylor, the IMF chief's Washington-based lawyer. "He's tired but he's fine."

Any restriction the judge places on Strauss-Kahn's freedom of movement after Monday's arraignment hearing may determine whether he is able to continue in his globe-trotting role as managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

His arrest on Saturday plunged the Washington-based global lender into turmoil in the midst of the euro zone's debt crisis. The IMF board postponed an informal meeting pending further information from New York.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Strauss-Kahn had been due to meet on Sunday, said that finding a successor for the Frenchman was "not a question for today", but there were good grounds to have a European candidate ready.

More allegations involving Strauss-Kahn surfaced in Paris, where a lawyer said a woman writer was considering filing a legal complaint against the IMF chief over an alleged sexual incident dating back to 2002.

Strauss-Kahn, the early favourite in the 2012 presidential race, had his hands manacled behind his back and looked strained on Sunday as detectives led him to a waiting police sedan in front of a battery of television cameras.

A police spokesman said the 32-year-old chambermaid at the Times Square Sofitel had identified Strauss-Kahn on Sunday from a police lineup that included five other men.

STAR LAWYER

The IMF chief, who has retained Michael Jackson's former star defence lawyer Benjamin Brafman to lead his legal team, submitted to the forensic examination with police looking for scratches or evidence of his alleged assault.

A charismatic figure, Strauss-Kahn led the IMF through the 2007-09 global financial meltdown, pressing for stimulus measures and interest rate cuts to avoid a depression, and has been central in galvanising Europe to tackle its debt woes.

The euro hit a seven-week low against the dollar in early trading on Monday as news of his arrest raised uncertainty over further aid for Greece and indebted euro zone countries. The European Commission and the German government said the case would not affect the bailouts.

The IMF, which said Strauss-Kahn had been in New York on private business, moved to fill a leadership vacuum by naming No. 2 official, John Lipsky, as acting managing director.

Strauss-Kahn wore a black overcoat, blue dress shirt and black dress slacks on Sunday, his hair neatly parted, as he was escorted to a police car in front of the assembled media. He kept his eyes straight ahead, avoiding looking at the cameras.

In France, his closest political lieutenant, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, said in a brief statement to reporters that his supporters could not believe the accusations were true and expected Strauss-Kahn would soon be "back among us".

Another of his senior Socialist aides, Manuel Valls, told RTL radio the public parading of the IMF chief in handcuffs had created "images of an unbearable cruelty", which dominated every French television news bulletin on Monday.

Police said the maid had described how the IMF chief, naked, sprang on her from the bathroom of his hotel suite, chased her down a hall, pulled her into a bedroom and assaulted her.

She told police she broke free but that he dragged her into the bathroom where he forced himself on her again.

The woman, who has not been named, was treated in hospital for minor injuries. She has worked at the hotel for three years and the property's manager said she has been a "completely satisfactory" employee in her work and her behaviour.

Strauss-Kahn's wife, French television personality Anne Sinclair, jumped to her husband's defence, saying she did not believe the accusations "for a single second," and other supporters in France cautioned against a rush to judgment.

Police say Strauss-Kahn left his $3,000-a-day suite in such a rush that he left his mobile phone behind but a French tourist who said she saw him check out told France 2 television he had appeared calm and in no hurry.

After he called the hotel from John F. Kennedy airport asking about his phone, police located him in the first-class section of an Air France flight bound for Paris. He was pulled from the flight minutes before takeoff.

NO IMMUNITY

Police say the IMF chief does not have diplomatic immunity from the charges, which if proven could carry a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years.

Defence attorney Brafman is a high-profile criminal lawyer who was part of the team that successfully defended pop singer Michael Jackson against child molestation charges in 2005. Brafman also won an acquittal on weapons and bribery charges for rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

The allegations threw France's presidential race wide open. Strauss-Kahn had not yet declared his candidacy but was widely expected to run for the Socialist Party nomination.

Early opinion polls gave him a big lead over conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, who is likely to seek a second term at the election next April.

"The news we received from New York last night struck like a thunderbolt," said Socialist leader Martine Aubry, who may seek her party's nomination, along with previous leader Francois Hollande, if Strauss-Kahn drops out.

France's government as well as Strauss-Kahn's allies and rivals called for caution and respect for the presumption of innocence. But unless the case against him collapses rapidly, it is hard to see how he could enter the Socialist primary, for which the deadline for candidates to declare is July 13.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her rival's presidential hopes had been crushed, while Christine Boutin, president of the Christian Democrat Party, suggested Strauss-Kahn may have been set up.

French voters are famously tolerant of political leaders' extramarital affairs, but the allegations against Strauss-Kahn are entirely different, and much more serious.

The charges were a huge embarrassment for an institution that oversees the world economy and has authorised hundreds of billions of dollars of loans to troubled countries.

The IMF faces questions of its own, because Strauss-Kahn's character had been questioned before. In 2008, he apologised for "an error of judgment" after an affair with a female IMF economist who was his subordinate.

The Fund's board warned him against improper conduct, but cleared him of harassment and abuse of power and kept him in his job. It will now face new scrutiny over whether that response was too weak, especially as there have been persistent rumours about Strauss-Kahn making sexual advances to women.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Lesley Wroughton, Noeleen Walder, Christine Kearney, Andrew Longstreth, Brian Love, Catherine Bremer and John Irish; Writing by Peter Millership and Paul Taylor, editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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