By Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Attorneys for embattled former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on Wednesday asked a U.S. judge to dismiss a civil suit brought by the hotel maid who accused him of sexual assault on the grounds that he enjoys diplomatic immunity.
Amit Mehta, one of Strauss-Kahn's lawyers, said his client's diplomatic immunity flowed from a 1947 United Nations convention that grants the heads of certain specialized agencies diplomatic immunity, regardless of whether they acted in an official capacity when the alleged harm occurred.
While the U.S. has never signed onto the convention, Mehta said it has achieved what is known as "customary international law" status, which means it must be honored even by countries that have not explicitly ratified it.
"The fact that the U.S. is not a signatory to the convention does not mean it should not apply," Mehta told the court.
The plea to Justice Douglas McKeon, a New York State trial judge, came in a pretrial hearing in a Bronx courtroom attended by lawyers for Strauss-Kahn and his accuser, hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo. Neither Strauss-Kahn nor Diallo was present.
Diallo's attorney Douglas Wigdor countered that no U.S. or foreign authority has asserted diplomatic immunity on Strauss-Kahn's behalf.
"DSK cannot invoke immunity on his own behalf," Wigdor said. "He needs to establish it, and the only way he can get it is if he gets something from the IMF or the State Department, which he has failed to do."
Diallo accused Strauss-Kahn of forcing her to perform oral sex in a luxury Manhattan hotel suite last May, leading to his arrest and ending his hopes for a French presidential bid. The criminal case faltered seven months ago due to prosecutors' concerns about her credibility as a witness.
The civil lawsuit, filed in August, represents Diallo's final chance to hold Strauss-Kahn legally accountable for what her lawyers called a "brutal" sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn has denied the allegations, and his lawyers have accused Diallo of financial motivations.
Strauss-Kahn's legal troubles have persisted since his return to France last summer. On Monday, he was placed under formal investigation by authorities there looking into a suspected prostitution ring in the city of Lille.
The investigation on suspicion of complicity in a pimping operation is the latest judicial headache for the Socialist ex-finance minister.
JUDGE SAYS HE WILL RULE 'EXPEDITIOUSLY'
McKeon made no decision at the hearing, but told the lawyers he would rule "expeditiously" on Strauss-Kahn's motion to dismiss the case.
McKeon spent nearly an hour questioning Mehta, Strauss-Kahn's lawyer, roughly twice the length of time he questioned Wigdor. After the proceedings, another of Strauss-Kahn's lawyers, William Taylor, said he was not concerned by the probing of Mehta's argument.
"I have seen judges ask very difficult questions of one side or the other and then rule in the other direction," Taylor said.
Under U.S. law, the civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn remains viable even after the dismissal of criminal charges. The standard of proof in civil cases is also less strict than in criminal prosecutions.
Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have asserted in court papers that he enjoyed legal protection from both criminal and civil claims by virtue of his position as the IMF's top executive, even after he resigned May 18 in the days following his arrest.
Another point of argument on Wednesday was the fact that Strauss-Kahn gave up his claim to immunity after he was arrested last year.
Initially, when Strauss-Kahn was pulled from an Air France flight by New York police May 14, 2011, he told the officers he had diplomatic immunity, according to court documents. Hours later, however, he rescinded his assertion because, his lawyers said, he wished to "defend against the false charges and to clear his name."
Outside the court, Diallo lawyer Kenneth Thompson said that the failure to claim immunity when facing jail time undermines the validity of his current argument.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Burns)