Roman Polanski freed after Swiss reject U.S. extradition request

Swiss authorities freed 77-year-old movie director Roman Polanski on Monday, choosing not to extradite him to Los Angeles to face sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
By Edward Cody
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

PARIS -- Swiss authorities freed French director Roman Polanski on Monday, deciding not to extradite him to Los Angeles to face sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

The decision, announced by the Justice Ministry in Berne, followed nearly 10 months of legal struggle between the U.S. Justice Department and Polanski's attorneys. After his arrest in Zurich in September, the 76-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker was imprisoned and then confined to his ski chalet in the Alpine resort of Gstaad with an electronic foot bracelet.

The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that the decision reflected doubts over the legal strength of the U.S. extradition request, in particular concerning negotiations between Los Angeles prosecutors and Polanski's U.S. attorneys at the time. Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said at a news conference that Polanski is now free to leave Switzerland and return to his home in France.

Widmer-Schlumpf emphasized that Switzerland's decision was not based on a determination of Polanski's guilt or innocence but only on the validity of the extradition request presented by the United States and what she described as Swiss national interests. Switzerland blamed U.S. authorities for failing to provide confidential testimony about Polanski's sentencing.

Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division, said the department is "deeply disappointed" by the rejection of the extradition request. "We thought our extradition request was completely supported . . . by the facts and the law, and the underlying conduct was of course very serious," he said, adding that the department is reviewing its options in how to respond.

The United States cannot appeal the decision, but Polanski is still a fugitive in America.

"That warrant remains outstanding," Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said, adding that Polanski could be arrested and sent back to America if he traveled to another country that has an extradition deal with the United States.

"It is an enormous satisfaction and a great relief after the pain suffered by Roman Polanski and his family," said Hervé Témime, a French lawyer who was on the team representing the director.

The decision constituted a victory not only for Polanski but also for a broad array of European intellectual and political figures who had come to his defense with petitions and statements of outrage denouncing the effort to continue prosecution after so many years.

Polanski's backers, ranging from fellow directors to French culture and foreign ministers, criticized U.S. and Los Angeles judicial authorities for seeking what they called crude revenge against a major artist who deserved more respect. Some suggested Switzerland had heeded the extradition request only to relieve U.S. pressure against Swiss bank secrecy laws.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the U.S. extradition request "a little sinister," coming so long after the fact. His colleague, Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand, said Polanski was being "thrown to the lions for an old story that doesn't really make any sense."

Mitterrand issued a statement Monday expressing satisfaction with the Swiss decision. Another vocal backer, the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, told reporters in Paris that he was "crazy with joy."

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