Strauss-Kahn's accuser: Schemer or immigrant survivor?

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 26, 2011 11:44 AM
Strauss-Kahn's accuser: Schemer or immigrant survivor?

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - First she was portrayed as a model of virtue who was violated by a rich and powerful man.

Then she was presented as a liar, a schemer associated with criminals in the New York underworld, who may have taken down the next president of France for her own financial gain.

The world remains divided on the hotel maid who accused former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of assaulting her in a New York hotel on May 14, an explosive case which like many sex cases comes down to whose account of the incident you believe.

Nafissatou Diallo, whose story had been told through prosecutors and defense lawyers, gave her own account to the media this weekend in a graphic interview with Newsweek and ABC, saying Strauss-Kahn behaved like a "crazy man."

It was the first time the widow with a teenage daughter, an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, had spoken publicly since she alleged Strauss-Kahn emerged naked from the bathroom of his luxury suite and forced her to perform oral sex.

Defense lawyers insist any sex was consensual and called the interview an effort to extract money from Strauss-Kahn.

Diallo's lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, said she wanted people to know she is not a "shakedown artist or a prostitute." The illiterate daughter of a Muslim imam, she was working as a cleaner at the luxury Manhattan hotel.

"She is not a whore, she is a good mother," said Blake Diallo, the Senegalese manager of a Harlem restaurant she once frequented, who is not related to her. "She was a wonderful, caring, hard-working African woman."

To women's rights advocates she is a survivor who embodies the immigrant story of fleeing poverty and repression for a better life in America. They also lament how the accuser so easily becomes the accused.

Yet defenders and political supporters of Strauss-Kahn were also handed material they could eagerly latch on to.

Prosecutors hoping to jail Strauss-Kahn for up to 25 years were forced to report troubling information about Diallo's background. In order to win U.S. asylum she had lied about being gang-raped and she changed details of her story about what happened minutes after her encounter with Strauss-Kahn.

What's more, the woman appeared to be surrounded by shady characters. The revelations threw the case into disarray, providing Strauss-Kahn's defense lawyers with ammunition to undermine her credibility should the case ever reach trial.

SHATTERED HOMELAND

According to lawyers for the accuser, prosecutors with the Manhattan District Attorney's office said they had found a recorded telephone conversation after the incident between her and a man detained in an Arizona jail in which she said "words to the effect" that "this guy has a lot of money. I know what I am doing."

The precise context of the conversation has been clouded by the difficulties of interpretation of a dialect of Fulani, but they were seen as seriously undermining the prosecution case.

Despite speculation that he might drop the charges, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance has yet to do so, indicating prosecutors may believe parts of both narratives -- that she was a victim but she also has inconvenient facts in her background.

"Poor immigrants of violence often do things to survive ... and are sometimes drawn into criminal or unsavory activity and often end up with really poor quality immigration assistance," said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the battered women's services group that has provided services to the accuser.

"She's typical of so many of the very vulnerable immigrant women in our city."

Despite Guinea's ample natural resources, decades of misrule mean its 10 million residents mostly make do on average incomes of around $3 a day.

One of six brothers and sisters, Diallo's early life was one of limited horizons and expectations. Her home village in the remote Labe region, a hard day's drive north of Conakry, still has no water, electricity or phone lines. It is reached only after a 30-minute scramble on foot through thick forest.

Her family is of Fula ethnicity, like 40 percent of the population. Her late father was known as a devoted and learned Muslim. Like many West Africans, her family practiced the Tidjiane version of Sunni Islam.

"Here, the girls get married at 16 and the boys at 20. We don't know anything about that other way of life," her older brother Mamoudou told Reuters, referring to the Western lifestyle his sister found in New York.

Her own arranged marriage to a distant cousin ended with the death of her husband -- the cause is unclear -- after which she left her home village in the mid-1990s, traveling to the capital to become a seamstress. Her ties with her family back in the Labe region then appeared to weaken.

Later, in her asylum application, prosecutors said she fabricated and embellished her story, claiming she and her husband were persecuted and harassed by the Guinean regime and her husband was jailed, tortured, deprived of medical treatment and eventually died as a result.

After the encounter with Strauss-Kahn, she told prosecutors she had fabricated the statement with the help of an advisor. Kenneth Thompson, a lawyer representing her, said she volunteered to prosecutors she had lied on her asylum application due to that bad advice.

FROM AFRICA TO THE BRONX

Diallo was a victim of genital mutilation, and she wanted to avoid the same fate for her daughter, Thompson said. Those facts would have been enough to win asylum without the need to invent a story, he said.

"We've seen ... clients are encouraged to make misrepresentations, even when the true story might be the very strong basis for an immigration claim," Leidholdt said.

Prosecutors said Diallo was the victim of a rape in Guinea, though not a gang-rape as related in her asylum application.

Within days of Strauss-Kahn's arrest, his advisers worked to collect information about Diallo's history.

They quickly turned up links with people involved in criminal activities, but it was Manhattan prosecutors who uncovered some of the most damaging information on Diallo, according to William Taylor, one of Strauss-Kahn's lawyers.

The man she spoke with in the Arizona jail had been arrested for bartering counterfeit designer clothes for marijuana, the New York Times reported.

In addition, the Times said, investigators had found bank records showing deposits of thousands of dollars into her bank account, transferred there from a variety of U.S. states by the jailed man.

Taylor said those details came from the District Attorney's office and their investigators.

Diallo told Newsweek magazine the man did indeed transfer the money into her account, but she was never told about it and she never spent any of the cash.

Once she moved to New York, she became a regular at Cafe 2115 on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, a magnet for the many French-speaking West Africans who live in Harlem, the largely black section of upper Manhattan.

"These stories of drugs and laundering money, I don't know her that way. She is not that kind of person," the restaurateur Diallo said.

She worked at the African American Restaurant Marayway, a Gambian eatery in the Bronx, where she worked serving Gambian food before landing a job at the luxury Sofitel hotel.

Immigrant opinions of the woman are sharply mixed.

"Why would a big man who could be president of France want to spoil his chances by doing such a thing?" asked Ouma Mahamadou, 23, a Nigerian patron of Cafe 2115. "It doesn't make any sense to me, so she must be lying."

(Additional reporting by Paula Rogo and Noeleen Walder in New York, Mark Hosenball in London, and Saliou Samb in Conakry, editing by Mark Egan and Sandra Maler)