Feature

Why the Swiss freed Polanski

French-born filmmaker Roman Polanski was freed from house arrest after a judge ruled that the extradition request was incomplete and had to be thrown out. His arrest had been a mistake in the first place.

“Justice and reason have finally prevailed,” said French journalist Agnès Poirer in the London Guardian. The Swiss Justice Ministry this week turned down the “arbitrary and vengeful” U.S. request that French-born filmmaker Roman Polanski be extradited to the U.S., and he was freed from house arrest after nine months. The U.S. claimed that Polanski had fled justice. But the truth of the matter, disputed by no one, is that Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl back in 1973, and even returned to California from Europe to serve the term of his plea bargain, 90 days in prison. It was only when he learned that the judge was about to commit “gross misconduct” by throwing out the plea bargain and slapping him with a longer sentence that Polanski “had the guts to flee.” Yet the U.S. judicial system hounded Polanski for decades, in an example of “rampant moral McCarthyism.” What a relief that Switzerland, at least, did not share the same “moralistic prejudices.”

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf will “surely be accused of having bowed to the fame of a brilliant artist and his powerful supporters,” said Denis Masmejan in Geneva’s Le Temps. But she did nothing of the sort. Polanski, it turns out, was arrested at the Zurich airport last year because a Swiss official, “without consulting his superiors,” alerted the U.S. to his presence, prompting an international arrest warrant to be served. Yet Switzerland had expressly invited Polanski, who was living in France, into our country to receive a prize. Ultimately, Polanski’s arrest “was just a stupid blunder.”

Even so, the legal reasoning of the ruling not to extradite Polanski “stands on wobbly legs,” said Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung in an editorial. Widmer-Schlumpf claimed that the U.S. failure to hand over a certain document—the testimony of a former prosecutor who said he had a plea deal with Polanski—meant that the extradition request was incomplete and had to be thrown out. Many Swiss lawyers are uncomfortable with that argument, noting that the U.S. had met all conditions set out in the extradition treaty between the two countries. Some say it would have been more plausible to reject the extradition on humanitarian grounds, given that Polanski is now 77 years old.

Widmer-Schlumpf’s ruling was certainly a “break with tradition,” said Res Strehle in the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger. Obviously, the justice minister wanted to make the problem of Polanski go away, and she seized on a technicality to do so. But something good could come out of this unorthodox ruling. Maybe from now on, detainees “who don’t enjoy such a powerful international lobby as the famous director” will also have requests for their extraditions examined in minute detail. Then we would be protecting those who have “morally better grounds” to expect protection in Switzerland.

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