LILLE, France (AFP) - Former IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn on Tuesday denied knowing the women he took part in sex parties with were prostitutes, as he took the stand at his French trial on charges of aggravated pimping.
The silver-haired economist, whose presidential prospects were torpedoed by an earlier sex scandal, appeared tense as he answered questions from the lead judge.
"I committed no crime, no offence," Strauss-Kahn said in a letter read out to the court by the judge in the northern city of Lille.
He also said from the witness stand that the sex parties he attended were few and far between, and that there was none of the "wild activity" of which he is accused.
Asked by lead judge Bernard Lemaire if he was aware the women at the parties were prostitutes - the crux of the case against him - Strauss-Kahn responded "no".
The 65-year-old former finance minister, known as DSK in France, argues he is merely a libertine who engaged in orgies with consenting adults and did not know the women lavishing their attention on him were paid.
Dressed in a dark navy suit, Strauss-Kahn then sat arms folded, occasionally sighing heavily as one of the prostitutes, known as Mounia, took the stand to testify against him, revealing sordid details of the soirees.
Now retired, Mounia broke into tears several times as she recounted one of the nights with Strauss-Kahn in a Parisian hotel, saying she had been forced to commit a sexual act which was "against nature".
"I think he realised" I didn't want to do it. "I was crying, I was in pain," said Mounia, adding that she went along with it because she needed the money.
However she said that no question of money, or fees for her services were raised with Strauss-Kahn.
Mounia said that while she was dressed in a rather "classic" fashion, the other prostitutes were clad more provocatively, which would indicate their profession.
Lemaire said at the opening of the trial on February 2 that "the court is not the guardian of morals but of the law and its proper application".
Strauss-Kahn is the most high-profile of the 14 accused with "aggravated pimping", some also with fraud, and his presence at the court drew crowds of journalists and curious onlookers.
As he arrived at the court, topless Femen activists threw themselves on his car, one of them with "pimps, clients, guilty" scrawled across her chest.
He is in court with businessmen David Roquet and Fabrice Paszkowski and former police commissioner Jean-Christophe Lagarde, accused of being the organisers and financiers of the sex parties.
"I was flattered to meet, be heard, by such an intense, well-known person, whose intelligence was much greater than mine," Lagarde said of DSK.
The trial is the latest in a series of cases offering a peek behind the bedroom door of a man once tipped as a potential challenger to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
France was stunned when it saw Strauss-Kahn paraded handcuffed in front of the world's cameras after a New York hotel maid accused him of sexual assault in May 2011 - a case that was eventually settled in a civil suit.
Strauss-Kahn will have three days to fend off accusations that he organised for prostitutes to attend sex parties with him in Paris, Brussels and Washington in the case which could land him in prison for up to 10 years.
But even prosecutors have been divided over whether there is enough evidence to prove DSK was more pimp than casual consumer.
In 2013 state prosecutor Frederic Fevre called for the charges to be dropped, but investigating judges overruled him and ordered DSK to stand trial.
The judges argued that Strauss-Kahn could not have been ignorant of the fact the women were prostitutes, and also provided use of his apartment for the parties, which falls under the definition of procuring.
Prostitution is legal in France but procuring - the legal term for pimping which includes encouraging, benefiting from or organising prostitution - is a crime.
Judicial sources say Strauss-Kahn was "the king of the party" and that the orgies were organised around his schedule, with his mere presence giving rise to prostitution.