Switzerland rejects extradition of Roman Polanski in sex case

Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski will not be extradited to the United States to face sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago, Swiss authorities announced Monday.

The Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police said the U.S. had failed to turn over certain documents requested by the Swiss. The department also said Polanski, who maintains a vacation home in Switzerland, could reliably expect not to be arrested and deported because the U.S. knew of his frequent presence there over the last few years but never acted on it.

Polanski, 76, has already been released from house arrest, the justice department said.

The announcement was a dramatic development in a case that has lasted more than 30 years. In 1978, Polanski fled the U.S. hours before he was to be sentenced for having unlawful sex with a minor.

He has not set foot in the U.S. since. Born in France, Polanski is a French citizen.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article said Polanski was born in Poland. He was born in France.

The director has been in Swiss custody since September of last year, when police in Zurich arrested him on his arrival in the city to accept a lifetime achievement award at the local film festival. The arrest was performed at the request of authorities in Los Angeles.

The U.S. lodged a formal extradition request at the end of October. Legal experts said that, by law, Swiss justice officials were obliged to rule on the request only on technical and administrative grounds, examining it to see that all proper procedures were followed, rather than on the actual merits of the case against Polanski.

In its decision Monday, the Swiss Justice Department said it could not exclude the possibility that the extradition request was “undermined by a serious fault” because the U.S. had failed to turn over certain documents.

Specifically, the Swiss wanted to determine whether the 42 days Polanski had already spent in a Los Angeles jail would have been considered sufficient time served for having sex with a minor.

Also, Swiss authorities said that, until 2009, the U.S. had not filed any extradition request against Polanski “for years,” even though it knew he had bought a house in Switzerland in 2006 and was a regular visitor there. That gave the director a reasonable expectation that he was not under threat of arrest and deportation from there.

“Roman Polanski would not have decided to go to the film festival in Zürich in September 2009 if he had not trusted that the journey would not entail any legal disadvantages for him,” the Swiss justice department said.

Peter Cosandey, a former prosecutor in Zurich with experience in extradition cases, said that, on the face of it, the ministry’s decision not to extradite Polanski “makes sense” legally and administratively.

If there was a strong possibility at the time that the director’s 42 days in jail in L.A. was going to be declared a sufficient sentence, then the argument for his extradition suddenly loses a major pillar, Cosandey said. In other words, why send him back to L.A. if he’s already served out his likely sentence?

Guido Balmer, a spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, said Switzerland deals with about 200 extradition cases a year. About 95% of extradition requests are granted; among the 5% that are denied, the most common reasons are that the alleged crime in the defendant’s home country is not a crime in Switzerland or, as in Polanski’s case, the extradition request is considered flawed.

Balmer acknowledged that Polanski received special treatment in being granted house arrest last December, but only because he put up an unprecedented bail of $4.5 million, which would have been forfeited had he tried to flee.

When it came to adjudicating the extradition request, no account was taken of Polanski’s celebrity status, Balmer insisted. The decision had “nothing to do with the profile of the person but with the profile of the facts.”

Polanski began his house arrest at the Milky Way, his three-story chalet in the luxurious Swiss Alps resort town of Gstaad, on Dec. 4. He was reunited there with his wife and their two children.

Their presence set off a media storm in what is normally a quiet retreat, a winter playground popular with the world’s rich and famous. The town has a population of 2,500 but boasts its own Rolex, Cartier and Hermes outlets. Residents pride themselves on a casual attitude toward celebrities and discretion about their activities.

But the terms of Polanski’s confinement meant that he could not venture past the boundaries of his property. An electronic anklet monitored his movements, which would alert police in the canton of Bern if he tried to flee or take the anklet off.

He was, however, free to receive visitors. His most recent film, the political thriller “The Ghost Writer,” was completed and released during his period of house arrest.