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Fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski is seized in Switzerland

The Oscar-winning director, accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl in L. A. in 1977, fled the country before his sentencing. His arrest could trigger his extradition to L.A. County.

September 28, 2009|Harriet Ryan

Roman Polanski's decision to attend Zurich's film festival this weekend was a major win for a minor event, but it turned into a bigger coup for Los Angeles County authorities who seized the opportunity to arrange the arrest -- three decades in the making -- of a Hollywood fugitive.

When the 76-year-old Academy Award-winning director of films such as "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Pianist" arrived at the Zurich, Switzerland, airport Saturday night for a well-publicized appearance, Swiss officials armed with a U.S. arrest warrant took him into custody. The arrest touches off extradition proceedings that could return the filmmaker to the United States to face the child sex case he fled in 1978.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which prosecuted Polanski 32 years ago for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and has battled the director in the last year over his attempts to have the controversial case dismissed, initiated the arrest last week when it learned of his travel plans to Zurich.

"It wasn't any secret. It was on the Internet. They were selling tickets to it," said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. She said prosecutors prepared a provisional warrant and sent it to U.S. Justice Department officials, who presented it to Swiss authorities.

The arrest stunned Polanski, who has long lived in Paris where his French citizenship protects him from extradition. His attorneys in the U.S. and France said that despite his fugitive status in the United States, the director routinely travels throughout Europe. He owns a chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, and festival organizers said they never considered his U.S. legal problems when recruiting him to headline their event by accepting a lifetime achievement award.

"There were no concerns whatsoever," festival spokeswoman Nikki Parker said.

The length and outcome of Polanski's stay in Switzerland remained uncertain Sunday.

"If he agrees with an extradition, he could be sent to the U.S. in the next days," said Guido Ballmer, a spokesman for the Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police.

But statements by his French attorney suggested there was little chance that Polanski would return without a fight. Herve Temime told the French newspaper Le Figaro that he planned to fly to Switzerland with Polanski's wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, to seek the director's release.

"We are going to argue a defense based on the extradition procedure," he said.

The U.S. Justice Department has 60 days to file a written request for Polanski's transfer to Los Angeles. If Polanski opposes extradition, the Swiss legal process can be lengthy because multiple levels of appeals are available, Ballmer said.

Polanski's detention was condemned by officials in France and Poland, where he spent part of his childhood. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told the Polish news agency PAP that the countries would make a joint appeal to Switzerland and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to release the filmmaker.

In Paris, Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said he was "dumbfounded" by the arrest and had talked with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The arrest is the latest twist in a legal saga that has captivated and outraged the public since Jimmy Carter was president. In 1977, Polanski -- a household name both for his movies and for the Manson family murder of his then-wife, Sharon Tate -- was arrested at a Beverly Hills hotel and charged with raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old aspiring model. The girl told police the director had plied her with champagne and a piece of a quaalude during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson's Mulholland Drive home. He then forced himself on her as she begged him to stop.

Polanski reached a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to a count of unlawful sex with a minor and prosecutors agreed not to pursue rape, sodomy and other charges. A judge ordered Polanski to spend 42 days in state prison for pre-sentencing "diagnostic testing." Polanski served the time and was released. But on the eve of his sentencing in 1978, he boarded a plane for Europe, never to return to the U.S.

The court issued an arrest warrant that has remained in effect since.

From his home in Paris, Polanski settled a civil suit by the victim, Samantha Geimer, for an unspecified amount, and she publicly forgave him. He continued to direct films in Europe and married Seigner, with whom he has two children.

In 1997, Polanski tried to work out a deal with the district attorney's office to return to L.A.: Authorities would arrest him at the airport and bring him straight to court, where he would be sentenced to time served and immediately released.

That deal fell apart, with Polanski's side saying that he objected to television coverage in the courtroom.

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