Immunity in rape lawsuit?

Posted: March 26, 2012

NEW YORK - After criminal sexual-assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn dissolved last year in prosecutors' doubts about his accuser's reliability, she vowed to get her day in another court.

The hotel maid's civil case against the former International Monetary Fund chief is now nearing an important point, with a hearing set this week on Strauss-Kahn's claim that diplomatic immunity should insulate him from the lawsuit.

The hearing Wednesday is likely to revolve around the complex laws that shield diplomats from prosecution and lawsuits in their host countries. And Strauss-Kahn's arguments are raising some novel questions about the scope of those laws, experts say.

"This is a very unique set of circumstances, and high-profile, to boot," said Robert C. O'Brien, a former United Nations official who is now the managing partner of Arent Fox LLP's Los Angeles office.

Neither housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo, 33, nor Strauss-Kahn, 62, is expected to attend the hearing in a Bronx state court.

It's unclear when a judge will decide whether the case should be allowed to go forward toward a trial, which Diallo's lawyers say she eagerly awaits.

"It didn't happen with the D.A., but we intend to vindicate Ms. Diallo's rights," one of her lawyers, Kenneth P. Thompson, said by phone.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyers declined to comment. They've previously slammed the suit as an attempt to squeeze money out of him.

Then overseeing the IMF, Strauss-Kahn was in New York to visit his daughter when Diallo said he attacked her. The married Strauss-Kahn has since called the encounter a "moral failing" but insists it wasn't violent.

When police arrested him, Strauss-Kahn declared that he had diplomatic immunity, according to a police account of his statements. But the IMF soon said he didn't because he was in New York on personal business. Strauss-Kahn, who resigned his post days later, ultimately didn't try to assert immunity in the criminal case.

His lawyers have said he was focused then on clearing his name but is claiming immunity now because he doesn't want to have to defend himself further against the same allegations.

Giving foreign countries' representatives a legal pass, to show respect and further diplomacy, is an ancient tradition codified in various modern laws.

Strauss-Kahn argues he had complete immunity - including for personal activities - under a 1947 U.N. agreement that afforded that privilege to the heads of "specialized agencies," which include the IMF. Strauss-Kahn carried a diplomatic travel document saying he was entitled to those immunities, his lawyers note.

The United States isn't part of the 1947 agreement. But Strauss-Kahn's lawyers contend that it has such widespread acceptance elsewhere that it has become what's known as "customary international law," a principle U.S. courts have recognized.

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