NEW YORK >> The maid came from one of the world’s poorest countries to the U.S., working to support the teen daughter she raised alone. To her, the penthouse suite at the Sofitel Hotel was just another empty room to clean.
She says she had no idea there was a man inside or that he was a famous French politician. She says he was naked, chased her down and tried to rape her.
The man, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, remained jailed under a suicide watch Wednesday as a lawyer for the woman sought to rebut whispered allegations that her charges were a conspiracy and a setup.
Calls intensified for the 62-year-old Strauss-Kahn to step down as head of the powerful International Monetary Fund, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner saying Strauss-Kahn “is obviously not in a position to run” the agency.
Strauss-Kahn was one of France’s most high-profile politicians and a potential candidate for president in next year’s elections. His arrest on charges including attempted rape shocked France and cast intense attention on his accuser, a 32-year-old chambermaid from the West African nation of Guinea.
On Tuesday her lawyer, Jeffrey Shapiro, said he had no doubts his client was telling the truth about her encounter with Strauss-Kahn on Saturday.
“She came from a country in which poor people had little or no justice, and she’s now in a country where the poor have the same rights as do the rich and the powerful,” Shapiro said. “What (Strauss-Kahn) might be able to get away with in some countries, he can’t here in this country.”
Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said at his client’s arraignment this week that defense lawyers believe the forensic evidence “will not be consistent with a forcible encounter.”
But Shapiro dismissed suggestions that the woman had made up the charges or tried to cover up a consensual encounter.
“This is nothing other than a physical, sexual assault by this man on this young woman,” Shapiro said in an interview in his Manhattan office. He said that the woman didn’t know who was staying in the 28th-floor suite she went to clean on Saturday afternoon, before she said she was attacked.
“She did not know who this man was until a day or two after this took place,” Shapiro said. “She had no idea who this man was.”
Strauss-Kahn is also charged with sex abuse, a criminal sex act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching. The most serious charge carries five to 25 years in prison.
Because of his high profile, he was being held Tuesday at Rikers Island in a section of the jail that normally houses prisoners with highly contagious diseases like measles or tuberculosis. Corrections spokesman Stephen Morello said Strauss-Kahn has been placed in a wing with about 14 cells, all of them empty except for his.
Norman Seabrook, president of the correction officers union, said Strauss-Kahn did or said something during a mental health evaluation that concerned doctors, and he is being monitored day and night.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of prisoner medical information, said Strauss-Kahn had not tried to harm himself.
Strauss-Kahn’s cell has a toilet and a sink. He takes his meals there, with breakfast at 5 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 or 5 p.m.
Morello said Strauss-Kahn can occasionally leave his cell and wander the wing, and can go outside for an hour each day. Because he is awaiting trial, Strauss-Kahn isn’t required to wear a prison uniform. He may bring his own clothing and wear what he chooses, except for his shoes.
Meanwhile in Europe, Strauss-Kahn’s past conduct with other women was getting new scrutiny.
The IMF investigated him following a 2008 affair with an employee, the Hungarian-born economist Piroska Nagy. The institution eventually cleared him of wrongdoing, but a person close to Nagy said Tuesday that she had sent the organization a letter at the time warning about his behavior toward women.
The letter voiced “doubts about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s suitability for running an international institution,” according to the person, who declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
The New York Times published an excerpt of the letter, along with an account that said Strauss-Kahn had aggressively pursued Nagy, sent her sexually explicit messages and once had her summoned from the bathroom to speak to him.
The scandal comes at a delicate time for the IMF, which is trying to shore up teetering economies in Europe. The IMF is an immensely powerful agency that loans money to countries to stabilize the world economy. In exchange it often imposes strict austerity measures.
Strauss-Kahn seemed to anticipate that his problems with women could be a political liability ahead of France’s presidential elections.
The French daily newspaper Liberation reported this week that at a meeting with Strauss-Kahn in April, he speculated that his presidential campaign might be subjected to low blows over “money, women and my Jewishness.”
Strauss-Kahn also theorized that his enemies might try to pay someone to accuse him of rape, according to the newspaper.
The Associated Press does not name victims of alleged sex crimes unless they agree to it. But in the days since the alleged attack in Manhattan, details are beginning to emerge about Strauss-Kahn’s accuser.
The woman came to the United States under “very difficult circumstances” in 2004 from Guinea, one of the world’s most destitute countries, said Shapiro, her lawyer.
Guinea’s average annual income of $1,000 per person is lower than Haiti’s and Rwanda’s and about the same as Afghanistan’s, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The woman’s daughter, then 8, came with her. The girl’s father is dead, and they have no other relatives in the United States, Shapiro said.
“They are very much alone in this world,” he said.
The United States gave the pair political asylum, he said, though he was unsure of the reason.
The woman found work as a chambermaid in hotels, he said, eventually landing a job in 2008 at the French-owned Sofitel Hotel on 44th Street in Manhattan. The hotel said she was a satisfactory employee.
The woman and her daughter moved into an apartment building in the Bronx about 10 months ago, said Zulema Zuniga, who lives on the same floor. The neighbors would occasionally meet in the elevator and say hello.
“She was very nice,” Zuniga said.
But this humble immigrant life was shattered, police say, on Saturday afternoon, when the woman entered Strauss-Kahn’s suite at the Sofitel to clean the room.
Strauss-Kahn came out of the bathroom naked, chased her down a hallway and pulled her into a bedroom, the woman told police. Then he dragged her into a bathroom, forced her to perform oral sex on him and tried to remove her underwear, she said.
She broke free, fled the room and told hotel security, but Strauss-Kahn was gone by the time detectives arrived, authorities said. They arrested him soon afterward on an airliner that was just about to depart for Europe.
Brafman said he is confident his client will be exonerated once all the physical evidence is collected.
Shapiro, a personal injury attorney, said he was put in touch with the woman through a mutual acquaintance. He said they had not discussed the possibility of a civil lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn.
Media attention has made it impossible for his client to return to her house or to work, Shapiro said. This week television crews and photographers hung around the employee entrance of the Sofitel and loitered outside her apartment, hoping for a glimpse of her.
Shapiro said his client is now in a “safe place,” but would not elaborate.
“Her life has now been turned upside down,” Shapiro said. “She can’t go home, she can’t go back to work. … This has been nothing short of a cataclysmic event in her life.”