(PLEASE NOTE: Sexually explicit language in paragraph 9)
* Strauss-Kahn moved to notorious jail
* He is accused of attempted rape of hotel maid
* France election race rocked by scandal
* IMF leadership in turmoil during euro zone crisis (Adds details)
By Basil Katz and Edith Honan
NEW YORK, May 16 (Reuters) - IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was denied bail and sent to New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail on Monday, a crushing blow as he fights charges that he assaulted and tried to rape a hotel maid.
Hours after his bail request was rejected, Strauss-Kahn was dispatched to Rikers, a dramatic fall for a man who oversaw the world economy for the last four years, has long enjoyed a luxury lifestyle and was tipped to be France’s next president.
He is being held in protective custody in an 11-by-13-foot (3.5-by-4-meter) cell to prevent attack from other inmates, officials said late on Monday.
“This is not about isolating the inmate from any human contact,” said a spokesman for New York’s Department of Correction. “This is about preventing the inmate from being victimized or harmed in some way as a result of his high profile.”
Unshaven and looking drained and tense, Strauss-Kahn had earlier listened grimly in a Manhattan court as prosecutors detailed his alleged assault against a maid in a luxury New York City hotel suite on Saturday.
His lawyers said Strauss-Kahn, 62, is innocent and they tried to have him released on $1 million bail, but prosecutors convinced the judge he might flee to France and she ordered him held behind bars.
Strauss-Kahn faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.
He is accused of attacking the 32-year-old maid when she went to clean his $3,000-a-day suite in the Sofitel hotel near Times Square.
“He sexually assaulted her and attempted to forcibly rape her. When he was unsuccessful, he forced her to perform oral sex on him,” Assistant District Attorney John McConnell told the court on Monday.
It was a humiliating court appearance for Strauss-Kahn, who before Saturday was seen as a strong candidate in France’s presidential election and has won praise for his leadership of the International Monetary Fund during the 2007-2009 global financial meltdown as well as the euro zone’s debt crisis.
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His arrest is also extremely embarrassing for the IMF.
Apart from dealing with a leadership crisis, it now faces serious questions about whether it let Strauss-Kahn off too lightly with a reprimand in 2008 after he was caught in an extra-marital affair with an economist who was his subordinate. Persistent rumors inside the IMF that he often made unwanted sexual advances to women have long dogged his tenure there.
The IMF board met informally on Monday for an update on its managing director, but it held off on deciding whether or not to remove him from his job.
If he is forced out, there could be a fierce battle over who would succeed him, weakening the IMF’s efforts to deal with the euro zone debt crisis. Europe has for long had a hold on the IMF’s top job but increasingly powerful emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and Russia might push for a change.
When his court hearing ended, Strauss-Kahn was taken to a rough New York detention center known as The Tombs and then transferred to the Rikers Island complex of jails.
Rikers holds about 11,000 inmates and often features in television and film crime dramas as the place where suspects are sent pending trial or to serve short jail sentences.
“It’s crowded and the food is terrible. And one of the dangerous things is famous people are preyed upon,” said Gerald Lefcourt, a well-known defense attorney, referring to both Rikers and The Tombs.
But Strauss-Kahn was checked into Rikers Island’s West Facility, the smallest of the 10 jails in the complex. He was one of just 25 to 30 inmates in the facility and will be kept from the others even when allowed out of his cell to stretch his legs, exercise or watch television.
Strauss-Kahn’s legal team said it was disappointed by the judge’s decision to deny bail, and it is expected to appeal.
Bail would give Strauss-Kahn much better access to his attorneys and allow him to live in New York with his wife, prominent French television personality Anne Sinclair, while awaiting trial.
Without it, prosecutors have more leverage over him as an extended period in a miserable jail cell awaiting trial can wear down even tough suspects. If he does not get bail, experts say, the ordeal could push him toward a plea bargain deal.
Lead defense attorney Ben Brafman was defiant on Monday, saying that forensic evidence taken by police from Strauss-Kahn over the weekend “will not be consistent with a forcible encounter.”
“We believe this a very, very defensible case and he should be entitled to bail,” said Brafman, who successfully defended pop singer Michael Jackson from molestation charges in 2005.
“We will prove ... that Mr Strauss-Kahn is innocent of these charges,” Brafman told reporters. “I think it’s important that you all understand that this battle has just begun.”
The defense team is expected to try to dig up information on the maid as it looks to undermine the prosecution case.
“It would be inconceivable to me they’re not investigating that person to see if there are any weaknesses in her case,” said Roland Riopelle, a partner at New York law firm Sercarz and Riopelle.
But prosecutors claimed first blood in the case on Monday, winning the argument over bail. They said the IMF chief could try to flee to France and that, if he were successful, it would be difficult to get him back again to face the charges.
“There is no mandatory extradition agreement in place between the United States and France, and they simply do not extradite their nationals,” said McConnell, the assistant district attorney. He also said prosecutors were investigating reports that Strauss-Kahn committed at least one similar attack in the past.
Judge Melissa Jackson ordered Strauss-Kahn remanded in custody and set a new hearing in the case for Friday.
After police were alerted to the alleged assault on Saturday, they pulled Strauss-Kahn off an Air France jet just minutes before it was to leave for Paris.
The case has dramatically changed France’s political landscape as Strauss-Kahn, a popular Socialist Party figure, was widely seen as the strongest threat to President Nicolas Sarkozy at the election next April.
He had led early opinion polls but, unless the case against him quickly crumbles, his presidential ambitions appear to be in tatters.
Socialist Party leaders were to meet for crisis talks on Tuesday to map out a new plan of attack for the election.
While the Socialists are in disarray, the immediate election campaign beneficiaries of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest appear to be Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Lesley Wroughton, Noeleen Walder, Matt Daily, Andrew Longstreth, Brian Love, Catherine Bremer, John Irish, Gernot Heller and Evren Ballim; Writing by William Schomberg and Kieran Murray)