By Edward Cody
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; C02
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."
Polanski was arrested in September as he flew into Zurich to be honored with a lifetime achievement award at a film festival. He received Academy Award nominations as Best Director for "Chinatown" (1974), "Tess" (1979) and "The Pianist," for which he won the 2002 Oscar.
He was wanted for fleeing the United States three decades ago on the eve of a 1978 sentencing hearing in Los Angeles. The hearing was part of a plea bargain in which Polanski acknowledged having illegal sex with the girl during a modeling session at the home of the actor Jack Nicholson. Before the deal with Los Angeles prosecutors, Polanski also had been charged with child molestation, rape and sodomy, and providing the girl with illegal drugs.
A Los Angeles judge sentenced Polanski to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. He was released after 42 days by an evaluator who deemed him mentally sound and unlikely to offend again. The judge then said he would send Polanski back to jail for the remainder of the 90 days and that afterward he would ask Polanski to agree to a "voluntary deportation." Polanski then fled the country.
The Swiss government's main argument concerned confidential testimony by Roger Gunson, the Los Angeles attorney in charge of the original prosecution against Polanski. The Swiss asked for the transcript, but Washington rejected the request.
Based on references to Gunson's testimony in U.S. courts, the Swiss said it "should prove" that Polanski served his sentence after undergoing the diagnostic study.
Since then, Polanski has lived in his native France while avoiding countries that have strong extradition treaties with the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.