Another law for the rich and powerful

Lichi D'Amelio and Natalia Tylim report on the decision to drop rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn--and what the case says about attitudes toward sexual assault.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn (Humberto Pradera | IMF Photo)Dominique Strauss-Kahn (Humberto Pradera | IMF Photo)

ON AUGUST 23, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. dropped rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one of the world's most powerful men--in what many believe is a case of the justice system protecting the wealthy elite.

On May 14, a hotel attendant named Nafissatou Diallo--who has since come forward publicly to defend herself against a media smear campaign--was found by five co-workers who described her as traumatized and on the verge of vomiting. Diallo reported that then-IMF head Dominique Straus-Kahn, a guest at the exclusive Sofitel Hotel in Times Square, had assaulted her.

While the incident itself lasted only nine minutes by Diallo's account, what followed was months of continual attacks on the victim by the media and every branch of the "justice" system.

As soon as the accusations were made against Strauss-Kahn--or DSK, as he is known to an admiring media--he immediately began a lavishly funded campaign to discredit Diallo. The campaign seems to have worked. According to Vance, prosecutors were "not persuaded--beyond a reasonable doubt--that a crime has been committed, based on the evidence we have."

The charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped not because there's any question that a sexual encounter occurred. Instead, Vance and the prosecutors say that Diallo couldn't be a credible witness in court--because, they claim, details of her account of the assault changed and she had lied in order to get asylum in the U.S. from her native Guinea.

Regardless of Diallo's past, though, her story has remained--from the start--that she was the victim of a sexual assault. Diallo said that Strauss-Kahn grabbed her and forced her to perform oral sex on him. A medical exam conducted on her at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital found bruises and lacerations on her genital area, a torn ligament on her shoulder, allegedly from being thrown to the ground, and Strauss-Kahn's semen on her uniform.

Despite these facts, the media cast doubt even on the question of whether there was physical evidence. Many media outlets repeated the assertions of Strauss-Kahn's attorneys Benjamin Brafman and William W. Taylor, who claimed in a statement that the hospital report wasn't based on a medical exam, but "on the word of the complaining witness."

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THE CALLOUS treatment of Diallo and the hostility toward her claims is typical of what many women and girls encounter when they come forward with an accusation of sexual assault.

But in this case, the smears have spread due to the work of Strauss-Kahn's high-priced lawyers and a compliant media that distorted, mischaracterized and outright lied about statements Diallo made regarding both the sexual assault and her past.

On the morning that the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped, Slate magazine ran an expose by author William Saletan that dismantled what can only be described as the "case against Diallo"--claims that, among other things, Diallo fabricated a past assault and had discussed details of the Strauss-Kahn assault with someone who is incarcerated.

Saletan used the district attorney's own report as evidence that the four main elements prosecutors later used to discredit Diallo don't hold water.

For one, while the media unquestioningly repeated the claim from prosecutors that Diallo "entirely fabricated" an allegation of a gang rape that took place in her native Guinea, and that she even admitted to this "lie," the prosecutors' report itself includes a "fine-print footnote" that reads: "[Diallo] stated that she had indeed been raped in the past in her native country, but in a completely different incident than the one that she had described in her earlier interviews. Our interviews of the complainant yielded no independent means of investigating or verifying this incident."

As Saletan writes, "In other words, she did not say that the rape was 'entirely fabricated.' She changed the details."

But Saletan further points out that even the footnote is disingenuous:

In a June 30 letter, the DA's office said Diallo "states that she would testify that she was raped in the past in her native country, but in an incident different than the one that she described during initial interviews." In the motion to dismiss, however, the DA calls her second account of the rape a "completely different incident." By inserting the word "completely," the DA's office bolsters its claim she "entirely fabricated" the rape.

On what basis does the DA justify this inflation of its allegation? The motion to dismiss cites no further interviews with Diallo, and it admits that the DA hasn't investigated the purported Guinea rape. The only basis for saying she lied is her retraction. But we have no idea how much of the initial account she retracted. Let's see the details.

The other widely reported allegation against Diallo involves a phone call she reportedly received from a friend incarcerated in an Arizona prison. The version of the story most people have read is that Diallo received a call from a "boyfriend" (she maintains that he's just a friend) the day after the assault. Press reports suggested that, in a conversation in the Fulani language, Diallo allegedly said, "Don't worry. This guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing."

As Saletan notes, this was the story that the New York Times ran on July 1, citing its source as a "well-placed law enforcement official." This translation of the conversation was exactly the same phrasing found in an affidavit filed August 22 stating that two assistant prosecutors had called Diallo's lawyers earlier to inform them they had "captured" this conversation on tape.

But Saletan notes that when Kenneth Thompson, Diallo's lawyer, listened to the conversation, along with a Fulani interpreter hired by the DA's office, Thompson:

emerged with a very different account. He said that 1) Diallo received two calls, but didn't place any, 2) she never brought up Strauss-Kahn's wealth as lawsuit bounty, 3) her friend did so, but she told him to stop, 4) she mentioned Strauss-Kahn's wealth and power only in the context of fearing him, and 5) when she said, "I know what I'm doing," she was talking about her safety, not about legal strategy. This fits the account Diallo previously gave to ABC News.

Saletan's exposé shows the lengths to which prosecutors appear to have gone to twist Diallo's words and sow public doubt about her integrity--despite the fact that she, not Strauss-Kahn, was the alleged victim.

No wonder many people believe the DA's office may have let a rapist off the hook without so much as a trial. The dropping of the charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn sends a message that those with money and clout won't ever have to answer for their actions. It is a further injustice to the many women who have been let down by the criminal justice system and shamed or faulted for their own sexual assaults and rapes.

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PREDICTABLY, ALMOST all of the public scrutiny has been directed at Nafissatou Diallo, who has essentially been put on trial for her own rape.

But Strauss-Kahn's past seems more relevant than Diallo's--and has gotten far less attention in the U.S. media. The "Great Seducer," as he's known in France, has a long history of alleged sexual assault.

Tristane Banon--a French journalist; daughter of Anne Mansouret, one of Strauss-Kahn's fellow Socialist Party officials; and goddaughter of Brigitte Guillemette, Strauss-Kahn's second wife--has accused Strauss-Kahn of trying to rape her. In February 2007, a French television program aired Banon's recounting of Strauss-Kahn's attempts to take off her jeans and bra when she met with him to conduct an interview for a book she was writing.

According to Britain's Guardian, "Banon allegedly described him as a 'rutting chimpanzee' and described how she was forced to fight him off. 'It finished badly...very violently...I kicked him,' Banon said. 'When we were fighting, I mentioned the word 'rape' to make him afraid, but it didn't have any effect. I managed to get out.'"

Banon, who was 22 years old when the alleged attack occurred, didn't press charges at the time, explaining, "I didn't want to be known to the end of my days as the girl who had a problem with the politician." In the wake of Diallo's accusations against Strauss-Kahn, Banon changed her mind. According to Banon's lawyer, "She is in a fighting mood. She isn't ready to let this drop. But she feels sorry for what has happened to Nafissatou Diallo, because she also believed her."

Mansouret, who initially discouraged her daughter from coming forward with the allegation, had what she described as consensual sex with Strauss-Kahn in 2000, describing it as "brutal." According to the French weekly newspaper L'express, Mansouret "describes DSK as a predator who isn't looking to please, but to take, and behaves like an obscene boor."

There's also the case of Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian economist and subordinate of Strauss-Kahn's at the IMF. In 2008, Strauss-Kahn publicly apologized for "an error in judgment" regarding his well-documented sexual relationship with Nagy. He was ultimately cleared of any abuse of power.

But after Strauss-Kahn's third wife, Anne Sinclair, flippantly described the relationship as a "one-night stand," an angry Nagy wrote to investigators, "I was not prepared for the advances of the IMF director general. I didn't know what to do...I felt damned if I do, damned if I don't."

While Strauss-Kahn insisted that the relationship was consensual, Nagy stated that her boss "without question" used his position of power to engage her in a sexual relationship saying, "I believe that man has a problem." She subsequently resigned from her post at the IMF.

Also in 2008, Aurelie Filipetti, a Socialist member of France's parliament, said that Strauss-Kahn had groped her, and that she vowed to "forever make sure I was not alone with him in a closed room."

Strauss-Kahn's so-called "problem" with women appears to be an open secret in France--prompting Danielle Evenou, a French actress and wife of a former Socialist minister, to ask on a French radio program, again in 2008: "Who hasn't been cornered by Dominique Strauss-Kahn?"

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YOU MIGHT think, given the long list of charges against Strauss-Kahn, that Diallo's accusation, coupled with the strong physical evidence, would at least merit a trial.

In particular, those on the left ought to stand against the idea that one of the most powerful men in the world, with the help of a high-priced team of lawyers and PR specialists, should be allowed to use his power to twist what his accuser said.

Disgracefully, some leftists don't seem to agree. The World Socialist Web Site, for example, appeared to buy the slander against Diallo, hook, line and sinker. In a number of online articles, the website actually defended the former head of the IMF against an African immigrant hotel attendant, cheering on the dismissal of charges as if it signified some sort of victory for ordinary people.

It's worth trying to understand the logic of those who defend Strauss-Kahn. By their reasoning, if it wasn't rape, the indisputable physical evidence in the case must be explained away as "consensual sex."

So a 32-year-old African immigrant woman decided, in the middle of her work shift, to have a nine-minute sexual encounter with a white man twice her age, whom she'd never met before. Was she simply acting impulsively? Why then did she tell her workmates and security officers immediately afterward what had happened? Or are we supposed to believe that this was part of a premeditated plot by Diallo to make money by taking on one of the world's most powerful men?

Far-fetched doesn't begin to describe these scenarios. It's only in a society so seeped in sexism and racism that such concoctions could be believed.

While Strauss-Kahn's conduct toward women has been portrayed as a "French phenomenon," the treatment of Nafissatou Diallo shows that France is hardly alone in not taking women's rape accusations seriously, or shrugging off the actions of men who repeatedly act as if women's bodies exist solely to satisfy their sexual impulses.

The case is one more egregious example of the way that women who come forward with their stories of sexual assault are treated in the U.S. and around the globe--as though they are the guilty ones.

To follow the media coverage in the Strauss-Kahn case, one would think that women regularly lie about being raped--and that men are regularly the victims of false rape accusations. The opposite is true. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an estimated 60 percent of sexual assaults in the U.S. go unreported, and less than 6 percent of rapists will ever spend a single day in jail.

To make matters worse, according to a recent New York Times article:

Experts said rape crisis centers usually see a drop in reported cases in the aftermath of high-profile sexual assault cases, especially those in which the prosecution failed, like the case against Duke University lacrosse players; the recent acquittal, on the most serious charges, of two New York police officers who visited a drunk woman repeatedly in her apartment; and the William Kennedy Smith case in the 1990s.

This should come as no surprise--women who experience a rape are shown that pursuing charges against an attacker could mean that everything they've done in the past will held up to public scrutiny. With a justice system seemingly stacked against them, it's no wonder that so many women would think there's some wisdom in remaining silent.

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WHILE STRAUSS-Kahn and his apologists have successfully pressured the New York City courts into dropping this case, Diallo and activists are continuing to demand justice.

Diallo's lawyers have filed an appeal of the decision not to appoint a special prosecutor in the case--that appeal will be ruled on August 30. It will be important for activists in New York to come back out to the courthouse and support Diallo as she seeks justice. Diallo has also filed a civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn for emotional, physical and psychological harm, in addition to seeking damages for the attempts to ruin her reputation.

Nafissatou Diallo should be commended for her bravery and deserves solidarity and support. Thankfully, the dismissal of the charges against Strauss-Kahn didn't go unnoticed. Angry protests outside the courthouse where prosecutors asked for the charges to be dismissed were visible and loud, drawing attention to the fact that the former IMF chief used his power and money to avoid trial.

Activists organizing SlutWalk NYC, a rally against sexual violence and victim-blaming, held a protest and speak-out the morning that the charges were dropped. Chants of "Sexist police, sexist DA--we want justice for Diallo today!" and "Shame on you!" echoed through nearby streets.

One protester cited the "Central Park jogger" case--when five innocent Black teenagers were convicted with no DNA evidence for the rape of a jogger in Central Park. Though the teens were later exonerated, such cases show the shameful double standard that exists for poor people of color in the justice system.

The importance of building a grassroots movement to take on the broader struggle against sexism and for gender equality was also front and center. As Suzy Exposito, a member of SlutWalk NYC, said:

For all those who ever wondered where the feminist movement went, we're back and we're here to stay. For all those wondering why there is still no equality here today, it's because there is no equality where there is no justice. And we cannot put our trust in politicians, we cannot put our trust in the cops, and we definitely cannot trust rape apologists like the New York Post or the Times to help us fight for justice. It's our fight to win.

This battle is far from over. As Diallo told ABC News, "I want justice. I want him to go to jail. I want him to know you cannot use your power when you do something like this."

The time is now to fight for a world of true equality--and where no woman ever again has to live in fear of sexual assault. Justice for Nafissatou Diallo!