July 12 (Bloomberg) -- The Swiss government freed director Roman Polanski from house arrest after refusing to extradite him to Los Angeles in a case tied to a more than 30-year-old sex scandal in California, drawing U.S. protests.
Polanski was released from electronic monitoring at his chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said today at a press conference. She said the U.S. refused to release documents to support its extradition request. Polanski, whose films include “The Pianist” and “Chinatown,” is wanted for sentencing in a case involving unlawful sexual conduct with a 13-year-old girl.
The Oscar-winning director was arrested at Zurich airport on Sept. 26 as he arrived to collect an award at the city’s film festival. Polanski, 76, was held in a Swiss jail before being placed under house arrest at his holiday home. He still would be arrested if he returns to the U.S.
“I wouldn’t advise him to go there,” Otto Lagodny, a law professor who specializes in extradition law at Salzburg University, said by telephone. “Mr. Polanski has to think twice and check diligently wherever he is traveling now, because the U.S. has bilateral extradition agreements with a lot of countries.”
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the U.S. was “disappointed” by the Swiss decision.
“The rape of a 13-year-old girl by an adult who should know better and does know better is a crime,” said Crowley. “We will continue to seek justice in this case, and we will evaluate our options.”
“We think it sends a very important message about how women and girls are treated around the world,” he said.
The film director was initially charged on six felony counts alleging he drugged and raped the teenager in 1977. He later pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor after the lawyer for the girl’s family asked prosecutors to avoid a jury trial.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the U.S. refused to disclose trial records that would shed light on Polanski’s claim that he served his sentence by spending 42 days under psychiatric evaluation.
“Considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case, the request has to be rejected,” the ministry said on its website. It also cited issues of “good faith” because the U.S. never previously sought Polanski’s extradition by Switzerland, where he is a regular visitor and has owned a home since 2006.
Zurich Film Festival
“We only formally request when we are notified by a government that the fugitive is their country,” Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a statement. “The request was filed immediately by this office after the Swiss notified us of Polanski’s expected arrival at the Zurich film festival in September 2009.”
Cooley said the Swiss justified their ruling on an issue that is unique to California law regarding the conditional examination of a potentially unavailable witness. Polanski in May unsuccessfully tried to release testimony by a former prosecutor that, according to his California lawyers, showed prosecutors were misleading the Swiss about his sentence.
Polanski’s lawyers argued in court filings that Roger Gunson, the former lead prosecutor on the case, said during “conditional examination” in February and March that the judge in 1977 intended a 90-day diagnostic study in state prison to be Polanski’s entire sentence. Polanski was released after 42 days and fled the U.S. in 1978 when it appeared the judge would send him back to prison.
“The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat,” Cooley said in the statement.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the U.S. can’t appeal the ruling through the Swiss courts and isn’t likely to do so through an international tribunal. She said she discussed the case at length with the U.S. Embassy in Bern, and “they understand the reasoning. I expect a further good cooperation with the U.S.”
Herve Temime, one of Polanski’s lawyers in Paris, said the decision was an “immense relief.”
“I’ve always believed the extradition must not be approved,” Temime said in an interview televised on French TV station TF1. “It’s even unheard of that the extradition request should have been filed because it was based on erroneous information, on lies.”
Laura Sweeney, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment. Agence France-Presse reported Polanski has left his chalet in Gstaad.
Annemarie McAvoy, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York, said the decision set a difficult precedent.
“Roman Polanski has managed to evade justice for 33 years, and now will be able to do so forever,” McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor, said in an e-mailed statement. “This case sets a terrible international example to those who abuse children.”
Lagodny said the U.S. refusal to produce trial documents was key to the Swiss decision.
“We don’t have a system of closed-chamber justice,” he said. “A dictatorship would grant extradition based on such dealings -- but not a democracy.”
“We haven’t tried to hide behind technicalities,” Crowley said. “You have a California court that adjudicated this case. The facts in this case are not in dispute. The girl was 13. There was an adult. There was a rape or unlawful sex. We think that’s a crime. That’s why we’ve been pursuing this case for many, many years.”
Polanski is married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner and has two children. The French-Polish dual citizen won the Oscar for best director for the “The Pianist” in 2003.
“Roman Polanski can at last return to the community of artists that has surrounded him with warmth and respect during a months-long procedure,” said French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand.
The 10-month Polanski extradition fight coincided with the U.S. Justice Department’s demands for the disclosure of information about as many as 4,450 bank accounts held at UBS AG by Americans accused by their government of tax evasion.
Last month, Swiss lawmakers approved a treaty clearing the way for the disclosures, ending a two-year legal battle that threatened the American business of Switzerland’s largest bank.
“The U.S. doesn’t have a reason to rethink its relationship with us,” Widmer-Schlumpf said. “Wherever we’ve had duties, we’ve fulfilled them.”
The case is People of the State of California v. Roman Polanski, A334139, California Superior Court (Los Angeles).