Polanski to fight extradition to US

In Europe, chorus grows for his release

By Edward Cody
Washington Post / September 29, 2009

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PARIS - Roman Polanski’s chief lawyer said yesterday 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 US 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 sex with a 13-year-old girl in the Los Angeles home of actor Jack Nicholson. He has been wanted by Los Angeles courts ever since and had long avoided traveling to countries with broad extradition agreements with the United States.

Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago identified herself publicly, has joined in his bid for dismissal, saying she wants the case to be over. She sued Polanski and reached an undisclosed settlement.

Polanski had crossed regularly into Switzerland over the years without a problem. His lawyer said Polanski owns an alpine chalet at the tony Gstaad ski resort where he often vacationed with his wife, 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, Frederic 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, Frederic 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 Paille, 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.

A 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 US 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 and the 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 yesterday 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 seeking her intervention for an immediate release on bail and consideration of a clemency decree from President Obama.

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 news agency 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 US arrest mandate could contain specific information.