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Finding the Good Victim: Diallo and Strauss-Kahn

Finding the Good Victim: Diallo and Strauss-Kahn

Binoy Kampmark
August 24, 2011

The dismissal of sexual charges is, as ever, a mixed blessing for the individual charged of them. Unlike other charges, a certain residue is left. ‘He walks free, but…’ The slime remains, and for some, it must be said, the slime is not entirely underserved, whatever the merits of a justice system.

The reality for former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is that US law stepped in to exercise its magical presumption of innocence after his arrest three months ago. Some of Strauss-Kahn’s detractors see it as a shield for the wealthy and the assured – he did preside over, as an Indian comedian described it, the International Molestation Fund. Even the lawyers for Strauss-Kahn had to concede that there might have been ‘inappropriate behaviour’ but this was ‘much different than a crime’ (NYT, Aug 23).

Prosecutors of the office of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. admitted to Justice Michael J. Obus of the State Supreme Court that they could not prove the case against Strauss-Kahn beyond reasonable doubt. From the mire of sexual accusation, Strauss-Kahn is now readying himself for a career in French socialist politics. He will still have to deal with the civil action against him for monetary damages.

It’s all gone wrong for the hotel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo, who brought down a once unassailable figure of the international finance community. Initially, it seemed that the 33-year-old Guinean immigrant seemed to possess bagfuls of credibility. Then came the fabrications, which, in the context of sexual allegation, colour accounts and undermine cases, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

People always lie about sex, but to do in this context where the burden is so high – beyond reasonable doubt – was crippling. The prosecutor’s report claims that a ‘hurried sexual encounter’ may well have taken place between the accuser and accused, but that this was no basis to conclude that sexual assault had been inflicted.

What is troubling is that, however dishonest a person might be over such matters as immigration status and a sketchy sexual past, it should not undermine the specific credibility of allegations of wrongful sexual encounter. One might be as pure as the driven slush, but that need not make an accusation inaccurate, let alone untrue. Vance’s admission on Monday was damning – that the truth about the encounter between Strauss-Kahn and Diallo was less important than the ‘nature and number of the complainant’s falsehoods’ (Guardian, Aug 22). A comment by a French attorney to the Guardian (Aug 22) says it all: ‘It’s not that he [the DA] doesn’t believe her, it’s that he doesn’t believe her to be a good victim.’

As always, such dramas illustrate broader problems. Strauss-Kahn has had his strong and vocal supporters. If one was to believe former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, economists are not likely candidates to commit sexual offences. ‘Did [Strauss-Kahn] have a knife? Did he have a gun? He’s a short fat old man’ (American Spectator, May 17). Stein’s understanding of the sexual encounter is evidently limited, with such howlers as, ‘If he is such a womanizer and violent guy with women, why didn’t he ever get charged until now?’ History is replete with men behaving badly and not getting caught, whatever the verdict on Strauss-Kahn. It was left to comedian Jon Stewart to pull up him up over his observations on sexually incapable economists, part of ‘the rapiest profession going’. ‘Yes,’ he quipped, ‘it’s a redistribution of rape.’

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy already had the case decided, for he knew that his friend of 20 years was no ‘monster’ or ‘caveman’. Contra Stein this man was, in fact, ‘seductive’. The accuser, drawing on endless reserves of an American justice system that thrives on accusation had to be at fault. ‘I am troubled by a system of justice modestly termed “accusatory”, meaning that anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime – and it will be up to the accused to prove that the accusation is false and without basis in fact’ (The Daily Beast, May 16).

The onus of proof, in case BHL had not noticed, never shifted from the accuser, though we know him to be rather shaky on grounds of examining sexual assault. After all, in his view (adapting the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas), one doesn’t rape or kill one’s interlocutor after having seen his or her face (Jewish Chronicle, Oct 14, 2006). That history has refuted this claim time and time again (if only lives could be saved like that) seems beside the point to BHL. The point to be made here is that such crimes take place behind closed doors, and are notoriously difficult to prove for an assortment of evidentiary reasons. One is even lucky to see an ‘accusation’ made much of the time.

Kenneth P. Thompson, who is acting for Diallo, was determined not to give up the ghost on the case, and filed a motion on Monday seeking dismissal of Vance’s office from the case. Justice Obus denied the motion. The appeal against the order was subsequently suspended. This is not to say that Thompson was wrong to assume that Vance’s office had been too quick to drop the case. It may well be that the office was too quick on the trigger in the first place, indicting Strauss-Kahn rather than giving them more time to sift through the case. The law might be an ass, but it needs it worthy executioners.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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