Adrian Hamilton: This is no way to treat an accused man

International Studies
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The Independent Online

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is obviously guilty and thoroughly deserves his public humiliation in court and incarceration in the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York. What is more, according to US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a replacement should now be appointed to fill his job as he is "not in a position to run" the International Monetary Fund which he heads.

Only Mr Strauss-Kahn hasn't been tried for any of the sexual offences for which he has been charged, let alone found guilty. Humiliation and refusal of bail cannot be the "punishment" – for all the presumptions of accusing commentators – for crimes for which he must be deemed innocent until his case is heard by a court of law.

That is not to make an excuse for what the bank chief may or may not have done in a "luxury" French-owned hotel, as the papers like to describe it, or to pass judgement on the general behaviour of a man who has been so instantly categorised as a serial rapist. Such is the nature of the debate on male sexual mores that any idea of precise circumstances and the case in hand is swept away by a general flood of accusation against men in general, and anyone accused of rape in particular.

No doubt the French are behind the times in their patriarchal attitudes to women and the chauvinistic behaviour of men – although my experience of America and Britain would not suggest that Anglo-Saxon men in power are that different. No doubt, too, we can congratulate ourselves on a press that is less inclined to turn a blind eye to such behaviour than in France – although, again, I'm not sure that the British and American press have too much to applaud themselves over when it comes to uncovering the serious misdeeds of the great and the good.

It is easy to view the French objections to this treatment of one of their most distinguished public figures as the typical posturings of a country that can't come to terms with the thought that its leaders could behave badly. Over half of French people apparently still believe the charges are trumped up. But we in Britain weren't so happy when UK citizens were dragged off to Guantanamo without a trial or when the NatWest executives were extradited to face US courts in handcuffs.

You can argue that this is just the American way. The US court system, and the glare of the cameras under which it operates, promotes a deliberate disgracing of the accused and the public revelation of every damning detail of a case before the court hears it. But there is something peculiarly demeaning about the manner in which Mr Strauss-Kahn in particular has been treated.

There was no reason to refuse him bail. A man of his public profile was most unlikely to disappear beyond the law's reach. And, if that was the fear, then confiscate his passport. Nor was there any need to allow cameras in court to record his unshaven, hunted look or to reveal, with such evident glee, that he was now on suicide watch.

Or, for that matter, what was the purpose in Timothy Geithner saying that he should be instantly displaced in his job other than to rub the man's nose in the dirt? If the IMF chief had had an accident, arrangements would have been made (as they have been) for someone to take his place until it became clear whether he would be returning.

It's no different for someone facing a court case. To say otherwise, to argue that the post is too important to be sullied with a case as potentially shameful as this, is to assume that a public figure deserves less dignity than the ordinary accused – which is the impression that the US prosecution officials often give as they struggle to gain publicity for themselves.

Where Mr Strauss-Kahn's position does make a difference is in the political consequences of such treatment of a distinguished foreigner. The politics from the US side may be largely domestic in motivation – district attorneys are usually politicians on the make – but the French are bound to take this as a deliberate insult to their nation. The damage to the reputation of the country, it could be argued, was caused not by the New York courts but by the alleged actions of the accused himself. But the French are not entirely wrong in suspecting deliberate malice. There is an edge of biting back in an America that has felt itself diminished in the eyes of its allies as its enemies. The French have been a favourite object of belittling ever since they refused to join the invasion of Iraq.

To that extent "l'affaire DSK" is bound to take its part in a steady erosion of US-European relations that has been going on during the last few years – over Afghanistan, Libya and economic policy. The US feels that the Europeans have pathetically failed to step up to the plate of international responsibility (all too true) while the Europeans feel that the Americans have too rapidly disengaged from the world except where their direct interests are concerned (which is also true).

Be that as it may, this is ultimately a human story of Ibsenite tragedy. However the court case turns out, Mr Strauss-Kahn's reputation has been damaged and his political aspirations wrecked beyond repair. There has just been too much discusssion of his past and too much assumption of his guilt for him ever to recover the kind of dignity the French look for in a President (and don't seem to feel they are getting from the present incumbent) .

Having been through all the clamour of defamation of Chris Jefferies in the recent Joanna Yeates case, we should be cautious about making too many assumptions in this case as in his. That doesn't mean that Mr Strauss-Kahn need be innocent. But he's not guilty as yet either. Until he is proven so, then he has the same rights of presumed innocence and dignified treatment as any other accused man.