Strauss-Kahn is accused of rape. So why does it seem like his victim is on trial?
By **Julianne Escobedo Shepherd**
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
At first, only those close to the case knew much about the Sofitel housekeeper who alleged that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, one of the most powerful men in the world, had sexually assaulted her in the presidential suite. It almost seemed she would keep silent until the trial, a faceless specter identified only by the various factual details that thrust her first into the headlines, and later into tumult. She was 32, an immigrant from the African country of Guinea, and a single mother who lived in the Bronx with her 15-year-old daughter. A few publications called her by name: Nafissatou Diallo, a loyal, hardworking employee described by neighbors as “a nice girl.”
But the story unfolded, and with it, the scandalous headlines. From the very beginning, there was international doubt and skepticism toward the case: French supporters of DSK were appalled at his so-called perp walk after he was apprehended at JFK, and some accused the United States (or someone) of orchestrating a conspiracy to discredit the then-IMF chief. The prosecution, led by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, investigated the accuser’s background and practically handed the case to the defense: she had lied on her immigration application, they said, and there was the matter of an inmate in Arizona she had spoken to on the phone before pressing charges. The New York Post single-handedly waged war on Diallo’s credibility, attempting to smear her as a “prostitute” with no evidence, citing anonymous sources from the defense.
By the end of June, Diallo was more vilified than Strauss-Kahn, at least in the media; by July 5, she was suing the Post for libel. That same day, the AP ran an article that called her rape case against DSK “teetering.” Though there were reports on DSK’s sexually aggressive past—well known in elite, wealthy Paris circles—as well as the pending lawsuit against him alleging that he sexually assaulted Paris writer Tristane Banon, at some point the narrative flipped. Through the old tactics of discrediting the victim, it seemed that Nafissatou Diallo was on trial.
But now she has broken her silence. On Monday, Newsweek published its cover story and exclusive interview with Diallo online, along with the first photos of her to appear in print. Written by Christopher Dickey and John Solomon, the piece is on the whole a feat of journalism—meticulously researched, incredibly balanced and indicting no one. It’s commendable of Newsweek to have written such a fair piece, particularly after the smear campaign waged by other papers. With the exception of some strange descriptions of Diallo’s physical appearance—Dickey and Solomon seem to go out of their way to point out that she is not beautiful—the piece illuminates much about the case that we have not yet had the chance to learn.
Most importantly, the points that the defense and the press are using to smear Diallo are completely distorted. The reporters don’t weigh on whether she was raped or not, but it’s important to note that the widely touted “credibility problem” is not as it seems. The media has also tried to depict Diallo as a money-hungry opportunist, based on a taped phone call she made to a prison inmate in Arizona, in which she is reported to have said, “This guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.”
However, there has always been doubt cast on the translation of the conversation, conducted in a dialect of Fulani; Newsweek states that “the actual words are somewhat different” according to sources. While Newsweek points out that “almost all questions about Diallo’s past in West Africa were met with vague responses,” it also later notes that she was genitally mutilated in Guinea, and claims to have been gang raped by soldiers—a common occurrence in that country.
It’s a commonly held perception now that Diallo’s emergence in the media is an attempt to coerce the DA to move forward with the case.
Neither point speaks to the veracity of her statements either way, but clearly most reporters and prosecutors are not doing the full research in relation to Diallo—there’s the overwhelming sense she’s not getting a fair shake.
Which may, in fact, be the point of Diallo’s public appearances, which began with the Newsweek piece and were followed by spots on Good Morning America and World News, and ended last night on Nightline. As the Newsweek piece depicts it, the prosecution is not necessarily doing its job; indeed, at times it sounds more like the defense. Consider these paragraphs:
“Prosecutors are likely weeks away from making a decision on whether to proceed with the charges. They remain confident that the forensic evidence shows a sexual encounter and impressed by the consistency of the story Diallo told to two maid supervisors, two hotel security guards, hospital personnel, and detectives during the first 24 hours. The prosecution team has ‘no idea what it is going to do yet,’ a person close to the case said. The investigators are ‘treating it like any other case that runs into these problems, and that means gathering all the evidence.’ […]
“Almost immediately after the indictment was secured and long before the public knew of the problems with Diallo’s past, prosecutors began digging around in her financial records and interviewing friends, looking for any evidence of extortion or criminal activity. The review found ties to shady acquaintances and suspicious transactions, to be sure, but no evidence of a premeditated plot against Strauss-Kahn.”
Certainly the prosecutors have to cover their bases—“to gather all the evidence.” But if the Newsweek story is correct, the evidence essentially favors Diallo’s account of the alleged rape. That the prosecution is still deciding whether to move forward, is counterintuitive.
Which brings us to the power dynamic at the heart of the case, and the most harrowing aspect of the Newsweek story: Diallo’s account of what happened. Dickey and Solomon report that, though she may have been vague about her immigration application, she was remarkably consistent and clear about what happened that day in May in the Sofitel. As widely reported, Diallo thought there was no one in the room when she went in to clean it, and Strauss-Kahn emerged naked.
“‘Hello? Housekeeping.’ Diallo looked around the living room. She was standing facing the bedroom in the small entrance hall when the naked man with white hair appeared.
“’Oh, my God,’ said Diallo. ‘I’m so sorry.’ And she turned to leave. ‘You don’t have to be sorry,’ he said. But he was like ‘a crazy man to me.’ He clutched at her breasts. He slammed the door of the suite.
“Diallo is about 5 feet 10, considerably taller than Strauss-Kahn, and she has a sturdy build. ‘You’re beautiful,’ Strauss-Kahn told her, wrestling her toward the bedroom. ‘I said, ‘Sir, stop this. I don’t want to lose my job,’’ Diallo told Newseek. ‘He said, ‘You’re not going to lose your job.’’ An ugly incident with a guest—any guest—could threaten everything Diallo had worked for. ‘I don’t look at him. I was so afraid. I didn’t expect anyone in the room.’”
She describes DSK grabbing her vagina so hard it left a mark on it visible hours later by doctors, and forcing her to perform fellatio—and all through the interview, she repeats: “I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Diallo, Newsweek says, cannot read or write in any language, and before working at the Sofitel, she braided hair and worked at a bodega for income. Dominique Strauss-Kahn was at that point widely held to be the successor to Sarkozy in the French presidency. Diallo did not know who he was until after she had reported him, and saw a story on the evening news:
“‘I watched Channel 7 and they say this is [the] guy—I don’t know—and he is going to be the next president of France. And I think they are going to kill me.’”
It’s a commonly held perception now that Diallo’s emergence in the media is an attempt to coerce the DA to move forward with the case. She is adamant that she wants him arrested, and throughout the entire five-page Newsweek article, she never once mentions money. On Good Morning America, through tears, she told Robin Roberts, “I want justice. I want him to go to jail. I want him to know you can’t use your power when you do something like this.”
But even with a preponderance of evidence, will she see a trial?
By arrangement with Alternet.Org.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.