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Strauss-Kahn claims immunity in US sex case

world Updated: Mar 29, 2012 07:15 IST

AFP
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Lawyers for Dominique Strauss-Kahn told a US court on Wednesday that a maid's lawsuit alleging sexual assault should be thrown out because the French politician had diplomatic immunity at the time.

Judge Douglas McKeon said he would rule quickly following a 90-minute hearing in a Bronx courthouse where a Strauss-Kahn attorney argued that the disgraced former head of the IMF had "the same kind of diplomatic immunity that other high-ranking officials and diplomats enjoy."

The civil suit, seeking unspecified damages, "must be dismissed," attorney Amit Mehta said in New York state court.

A lawyer for Nafissatou Diallo, the Manhattan hotel maid whose accusation of sexual assault triggered the spectacular downfall of a man tapped to be the next French president, ridiculed the notion of dismissal.

Douglas Wigdor said Strauss-Kahn "brutally sexually assaulted Ms Diallo" on May 14 last year and now wished to use the immunity argument to "deny Ms Diallo's right to a trial in this case and delay these proceedings."

Strauss-Kahn, who was managing director of the International Monetary Fund at the time, admits consensual sex took place with Diallo in his luxury Sofitel suite, but denies assault. New York prosecutors initially charged him, but then dismissed the case because of concerns over the maid's credibility.

Strauss-Kahn had some level of immunity. However, a key sticking point appears to be whether that only extended to him in his official duties.

McKeon, who spent most of the hearing in a rigorous probe of Mehta's arguments, at one point referred to the hotel incident and asked drily: "You're not contending that he was in the furtherance of the (IMF) business?"

The judge did not rule in court, but promised "to expeditiously issue a decision."

Neither Strauss-Kahn, who is simultaneously facing charges in France over an international prostitution network, nor Diallo, were present in the wood-paneled courtroom. Several dozen journalists, many of them from France, attended.

Unless Strauss-Kahn decides to pay Diallo an out-of-court financial settlement, Wednesday's arguments could prove to be only the first salvo of a drawn-out and bitter legal battle.

Allegations in the civil suit are much the same as the criminal charges initially lodged against Strauss-Kahn: that Diallo went to clean his luxury hotel suite and found herself being chased, then assaulted by its naked occupant.

If Diallo won her civil trial, Strauss-Kahn could then be ordered to pay her financial compensation.

Any trial is likely still some way off, since even if the judge rules that Strauss-Kahn had no immunity, his lawyers can appeal.

William Taylor, an attorney for Strauss-Kahn, told reporters outside the courthouse that he was "fully confident in the court process." However, he added: "Appeal is always one course of action if you happen to come in second."

As from the beginning of the scandal last year, Taylor insisted that Diallo's only motivation in accusing the wealthy Frenchman is financial.

"We have a lot of arguments, including the fact that Ms Diallo would like to have more money than she has today and we are sure she will not get that from Mr Strauss-Kahn."

But Kenneth Thompson, another lawyer for Diallo, called the immunity plea "desperate."

"Dominique Strauss-Kahn thinks he's above the law. His claim of immunity is completely baseless," he told reporters after the hearing. "Dominique Strauss-Kahn will have to come into this courthouse and be held accountable."

According to Thompson, Diallo suffers "enormous pain and she's still suffering emotional distress" as a result of the alleged assault nearly a year ago.

"We're not going to talk about trying to settle this case. What we want to do is go to trial in this case."