A New York judge dropped all criminal sexual assault charges against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn yesterday (23 August), leaving him free to return to France and attempt to rebuild his shattered career.
The decision brought to an end a case that has produced three months of sordid headlines on both sides of the Atlantic after a hotel maid accused Strauss-Kahn of attempting to rape her in his luxury Manhattan hotel suite and forcing her to perform oral sex.
Prosecutors took the rare step of requesting dismissal of the charges after discovering contradictions in the maid's story and questioning her credibility.
Strauss-Kahn, looking drawn, left court smiling with his wife Anne Sinclair, saying in a statement that his life had become a "nightmare" and that he had nothing more to say about the case.
"I look forward to returning to my country but I have a few small matters to take care of first. I will discuss this at greater length [at another time]," he later told reporters.
Strauss-Kahn had been a favourite to run as next president of France before he was hauled from a first-class seat on a flight from New York to Paris and arrested on 14 May. He resigned from the IMF four days later with his political dreams in tatters.
A quick comeback in France would appear difficult for the top financial diplomat. Lurid details of the case and his past sexual encounters shocked and fascinated the French, who are usually more lenient in such matters. His reputation has been tarnished and his standing in opinion polls has fallen sharply.
He still faces a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the maid and a separate inquiry in France from a writer who claims that Strauss-Kahn forced himself on her during a 2003 interview.
Prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance on Monday outlined how they lost faith in hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, a 32-year-old immigrant from Guinea.
While her account of the assault remained steadfast, Diallo told a series of lies about her past and about what happened immediately after the incident in a $3,000-a-night suite in New York's Sofitel hotel, prosecutors said.
Strauss-Kahn strongly denied sexual assault from the start. His lawyer Ben Brafman told Reuters in an interview after the charges were dropped that "this encounter was quick, it was consensual and she was a willing participant".
Diallo's physical size would have ruled out a forcible encounter, Brafman said. "She towers over him."
While evidence of semen was found on the maid's uniform, in the hotel room and on Strauss-Kahn's boxer shorts, prosecutors said they were unable to prove lack of consent, leaving the case hinging on the believability of the accuser.
But with her testimony changing again and again and as more and more lies about her past emerged, prosecutors concluded in a 25-page filing that "if we do not believe her beyond a reasonable doubt, we cannot ask a jury to do so".
The maid's attorneys sought a special prosecutor and New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus initially stayed his dismissal of the case for an emergency appeal. But within two hours an appeals court rejected a last-ditch effort by his accuser.
Strauss-Kahn, a former French finance minister, could make a dramatic return to French public life, but with his image tarnished by all the media attention, most political analysts doubt he would risk competing with President Nicolas Sarkozy on April's ballot.
"Whatever has been said, a man with the abilities of Dominique Strauss-Kahn can be useful to his country in the months and years to come," François Hollande, the front-runner among six candidates for the Socialist primary, told France Inter radio.
Asked whether Strauss-Kahn could take part in the October vote to choose the party's presidential candidate, Hollande said: "That depends on him."
French Socialists welcomed the dropping of charges and said they hoped Strauss-Kahn would return to public life, where his expertise on global economics was sorely needed.
While officially candidates had until 13 July to present their application to run for the presidency, Hollande's comments suggest Strauss-Kahn could yet make a comeback to compete in the party primary in October.
An opinion poll conducted in July, when prosecutors admitted that Diallo's credibility had been undermined by inconsistencies, indicated that voters were divided about a potential presidential bid by Strauss-Kahn.
The poll, for Le Parisien newspaper, found that 49% of those surveyed wanted the former economy minister to return to French politics one day, with 45% against.
EURACTIV with Reuters