Doubts in IMF sex case produce public criticism

As prosecutors privately weigh what to do with the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an increasingly loud discussion is shaping up between legal experts who say the case is doomed and advocates who argue the prosecution should proceed despite questions about the accuser's credibility.

The debate has grown from an inner circle of attorneys to a chorus of complaints casting shadows of race, class and power in the shifting narrative of the encounter between the rich, white former leader of the International Monetary Fund and the African immigrant hotel housekeeper who says he tried to rape her.

"If there's evidence, you don't turn the victim into a villain. ... Let the jury decide," said Robina Niaz, an advocate for Muslim women, who rallied last week outside the Manhattan courthouse where the case has taken several pivotal turns.

"I think this woman has shown tremendous courage by reporting it, and they did the right thing by arresting him — and then they take a 180-degree turn," Niaz said. "What does it say about their credibility? Never mind about her credibility."

Strauss-Kahn, 62, was charged with attempted rape and other crimes after the woman said he pursued her, forced her to perform oral sex and ripped her pantyhose in his luxury suite at the Sofitel Hotel near Times Square.

He denies the allegations, which have largely taken him out of the running for president of France, led to his resignation as IMF chief and raised suspicion in his home nation of a possible political conspiracy.

He was freed without bail this month after prosecutors said they were re-evaluating their case because the woman had lied to them about her background and didn't tell a grand jury the truth about what she did immediately after the encounter, among other inconsistencies.

The Manhattan prosecutor's office, led by District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., has received public support from former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and others who say the office made the right move in allowing Strauss-Kahn's release from pricey house arrest and publicly airing their concerns about the accuser. That has led some legal experts to declare the case dying on the vine.

But no decisions have been made yet. Vance's office says it's still investigating.

"The DA said there was grounds for an arrest. The police department felt the same way; they said there was evidence. I don't see that evidence questioned now, I see her life story questioned, so I don't know why this case shouldn't be decided by a jury," said state Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, whose Bronx district includes the Guinean community where the 32-year-old accuser moved with her 15-year-old daughter after immigrating.

Stevenson, speaking this week in an interview with The Associated Press, said that if prosecutors' faith is shaken in the evidence — which officials say included Strauss-Kahn's semen on her work uniform, the woman's unwavering version of what happened in the hotel room May 14, and testimony from people who saw her soon afterward — then they should dismiss the case. But he's not hearing those doubts.

Stevenson and a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Bill Perkins, joined activists at a news conference over the weekend to call on prosecutors to press the case. Some other advocates held a similar gathering outside the courthouse last week, and some newspaper columnists have also weighed in.

"What is so wrong with the original plan to hold a trial for Dominique Strauss-Kahn to decide if he committed an act of sexual violence against a hotel housekeeper?" New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer asked last week.

Their outcry adds to the intense scrutiny on the prosecutor's office, which has found itself defending how prosecutors have handled the case, facing calls from Strauss-Kahn's lawyers to drop it and dealing with a public standoff with the accuser's lawyer, who has called for a special prosecutor.

Vance has tried to send a message that his office is making its decisions independent of the public discourse about the case. "Our commitment to the truth and the facts will govern how we proceed," he told reporters earlier this month.

The office and defense attorneys said late Monday that they were agreeing to postpone Strauss-Kahn's next court date from July 18 until Aug. 1 to allow more time to investigate. It's common to postpone hearings in criminal cases — but with such a high-profile defendant, the move may draw even more speculation about the eventual outcome.

Perkins sent a letter last week to Vance urging him to "preserve the principle of due process" and decide to bring charges based on merits, "not the character of the victim or victimizer."

"The criminal justice process is always a test, not just of who's innocent and who's guilty, but whether or not our system is working," Perkins said in an AP interview Monday. "This is one of those tests — of the most dramatic order, considering the imbalance here, the contrast between the victim and the alleged victimizer ... (the man) rich, white and powerful, the female poor and African."

Some wonder whether it might discourage other women from coming forward in similar cases, even though reports of rape have increased in New York this year. Others look at Strauss-Kahn, who also faces and denies a criminal complaint from a French writer who said he tried to rape her in 2003, and wonder why his background isn't the issue, instead of the maid's, Perkins said.

Ariel Zwang, head of Safe Horizon, a nonprofit group that provides support to victims of rape and domestic violence, could not say whether taking the case to trial would be worse or better for what she sees as an overall climate of enmity that exists for rape victims.

Regardless of the outcome, the accuser's personal life has been dragged into the public eye and she has been criticized and called a prostitute — a claim that caused her to file a libel lawsuit against the New York Post. The newspaper says it stands by its reporting.

"It's a good opportunity for our society to take a look at this very, very powerful urge to blame the victim," Zwang said, adding that her organization tries to help victims heal with or without a trial.

Niaz, one of about a score of women's and immigrant advocates who rallied outside the courthouse Thursday, said she was outraged that prosecutors might not press ahead with the case despite saying there was some evidence to corroborate the woman's story of sexual assault.

Prosecutors said this month that the woman had given them an extensive but false account of being gang-raped in Guinea, cheated on taxes, and told a grand jury she hid in a hall until Strauss-Kahn left but now says she in fact went to clean another room before reporting the encounter.

Her lawyer has said she was honest about her encounter with Strauss-Kahn.

The Associated Press doesn't name alleged victims of sexual assaults unless they agree to be named.

Strauss-Kahn lawyer William W. Taylor III said no amount of rallies or news conferences would change the fact that the woman has been inconsistent. He cautioned against politicians and advocates trying to drive the prosecution of the case.

"When we adopted our criminal justice system, we decided to put the decision to prosecute in the hands of a professional prosecutor," he said. "There are good reasons why you don't let alleged victims or political groups or advocates of one cause or the other make decisions about whether to bring a criminal case. It's a very serious matter, and it involves life and liberty."

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