'In a Fighting Mood,' Roman Polanski Will Contest Extradition to U.S.

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

PARIS, Sept. 28 -- Roman Polanski's chief attorney said Monday the imprisoned movie director would fight any attempt by Swiss authorities to extradite him to the United States, setting the stage for an international legal struggle over his fate.

"He is in a fighting mood and determined to defend himself," the Paris-based lawyer, Herve Temime, said in a statement.

European cultural figures, political leaders and show-business personalities rose up in Polanski's defense, insisting that the film director be released because his original criminal charge dates from a 1977 incident. They portrayed the determination of Los Angeles judicial authorities to bring him to trial so many years later as vindictive and a stain on U.S. democracy.

Polanski, 76, a resident of France who is revered in Europe as a luminary of filmmaking, fled the United States 31 years ago on the eve of a sentencing hearing that was part of a plea bargain in which he acknowledged having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in the Los Angeles home of the actor Jack Nicholson. Polanski has been wanted by Los Angeles courts ever since and had long avoided traveling to countries with broad extradition agreements with the United States.

Despite such caution, however, he had crossed regularly into Switzerland over the years without problem. His lawyer said Polanski owns an Alpine chalet at the tony Gstaad ski resort, where he often vacationed with his wife, the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, and their two children. But Saturday, as he flew into Zurich for a film festival that was to give him a lifetime achievement award, Swiss authorities took him to jail on an international warrant stemming from the Los Angeles courts.

The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, called the arrest "a little sinister" after such a long lapse. The French culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, said he was upset to see Polanski "thrown to the lions for an old story that doesn't really make any sense." He said President Nicolas Sarkozy was following the problem closely.

Sarkozy's office made no comment, but the spokesman for his governing coalition,Frédéric Lefevre, said it was "shocking" to think how Los Angeles authorities seem to have waited so long before putting the international mandate in motion and then moving to make the arrest in such a "spectacular" way. Lefevre's deputy, Dominique Paill?, added that it was also shocking to see a country regarded as an example of democracy fail to observe a statute of limitations for such crimes.

"A democracy that does not admit a statute of limitations for unlawful or criminal acts is after all a very peculiar democracy," he added.

The former culture minister, Jack Lang, called the arrest "unimaginable and disproportionate." He added, "I cannot believe that, 20 years after an affair that would be considered in Europe as benefiting from a statute of limitations, Swiss authorities arrested Roman Polanski as he was getting ready to receive a prize."

Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian ambassador to France, who with U.S. backing was elected head of UNESCO last week, joined in the chorus, saying it was "shocking" to see "an intellectual personality known around the world" arrested in such a way.

Fellow filmmakers, including the directors Costa Gavras and Wong Kar-Wai, along with actresses Monica Bellucci and Fanny Ardant, signed a petition in France that called the arrest "inadmissible." It described Polanski as "one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers."

In Poland, the celebrated director Andrzej Wajda and other figures of the cinema world called for Polanski's immediate release. Although born in France, Polanski was taken to Poland as a young child and lived in Krakow's Jewish ghetto during World War II. His mother died at Auschwitz.

A citizen of Poland and France, Polanski on Monday received diplomatic backing from both governments, which in tandem asked Switzerland to release him on bail immediately pending resolution of the extradition dispute. In addition, Kouchner and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland announced they were writing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to seek her intervention for an immediate release on bail and consideration of a clemency decree from President Obama.

Robert Harris, author of "The Ghost," the basis for Polanski's latest film, expressed wonder that Swiss authorities decided to arrest Polanski after so many years and so many highly public stays in the country.

"Something happened," he said in a telephone interview from his home in the British countryside. "He's been going there for many years, and the Swiss have had plenty of opportunities to pick him up if they had wanted to."

Harris said the $40 million film, also called "The Ghost," was near completion and had been planned for release in Europe early next year.

Temime, the French lawyer, flew to Zurich to push for a bail decision and organize a defense against extradition. Polanski also hired a Swiss attorney, Lorenz Erni, to be part of the team, Reuters reported from Zurich.

Swiss authorities, meanwhile, defended their decision by portraying it as the automatic response to receipt of an international warrant from the United States. Whether an extradition request should be lodged, they said, was a decision for the United States.

Polanski had not been arrested earlier, they added, because only this time was it announced in advance that he would be coming for the Zurich film festival and thus the U.S. arrest mandate could contain specific information.

Rebecca de Silva, a spokeswoman for Zurich prison authorities, told the Associated Press that jail cells such as the one Polanski was believed to occupy usually contain one or two prisoners and are furnished with a sink, a toilet, a television and a table. On Monday, his third day of incarceration, Polanski was allowed a visit with his wife and spoke with his lawyers on the telephone, the agency said.

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