Los Angeles A surprise arrest at the Zurich airport, detention at the hands of Swiss authorities, and a high-profile extradition process that could take weeks or months. The irony is that for Roman Polanski, the acclaimed director accused of child rape three decades ago, this latest ordeal could lead to the one thing he’s lacked since: his freedom.
Polanski’s arrest as he arrived Saturday in Switzerland for a film festival honor could potentially spur on his legal team’s recent motion to dismiss charges that have dogged him since he fled the U.S. for France in 1978, a year after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.
But it could also elevate his case into an international ordeal — involving the governments of Switzerland, France, Poland and the United States — and potentially complicate his possible extradition.
“The big issue is whether it would have been better for him to negotiate a surrender when he had the chance,” Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson said. “Now it has become an international incident and the district attorney may be under pressure not to negotiate a sweetheart deal. They’ve gone to all this trouble of getting Switzerland involved. It could make it harder on him.”
Nevertheless, some believe the arrest of the 76-year-old Academy Award winner could lead to a resolution that will allow him to once again travel freely.
“I think he will finally get his day in court,” criminal defense attorney Steve Cron said, “and there’s a good chance his case will be dismissed or the sentence will be commuted to time served.”
Countries to seek release
Meanwhile, Poland and France intend to make a joint appeal to Switzerland and the United States to have Polanski released from his detention, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told the Polish news agency PAP. Sikorski said he and French counterpart Bernard Kouchner also plan to ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to offer Polanski clemency.
Polanski, the director of such classic films as “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” reached a plea deal in 1978, but was threatened with more prison time than previously agreed upon and fled to France before he was formally sentenced.
France has no extradition treaty with the U.S., and while he traveled throughout Europe, he avoided arrest in part because of lax policies on apprehending foreign fugitives. But in recent years, many countries have gradually tightened their efforts to find suspects abroad and extradite them.
It’s also not clear how hard authorities were searching for him. The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that U.S. authorities have sought Polanski’s arrest around the world since 2005, although he has been a fugitive much longer.
“There was a valid arrest request and we knew when he was coming,” Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Guido Balmer told The Associated Press. He rejected the idea that politics may have played a part in the action.
Previous attempts to nab Polanski when he left France were thwarted because authorities didn’t learn of his travel soon enough — or Polanski didn’t make the trip, said William Sorukas, chief of the U.S. Marshals Service’s domestic investigations branch.
“This is not the first time we have done this over the years,” said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. She said warrants had been sent out whenever rumors circulated that he would be traveling to a country outside France.
In this case, the honor for Polanski’s work proved to be his downfall, Gibbons said.
“It was publicized on the Internet that he was going to be at the Zurich Film Festival,” Gibbons said. “They were selling tickets online.”
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the director will remain in Zurich until the conclusion of the extradition proceedings. The United States now has 60 days to file a formal request for Polanski’s transfer, she said.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington declined to comment on the case Sunday.
Polanski’s French lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France-Inter radio that it was “too early to know” if Polanski would be extradited.