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Polanski arrested, faces extradition for ’70s rape conviction

Film director held by Swiss authorities

A FUGITIVE FOR 31 YEARS US marshals reportedly came close to arresting Polanski (left) a half-dozen times or so over the past few decades. A FUGITIVE FOR 31 YEARS
US marshals reportedly came close to arresting Polanski (left) a half-dozen times or so over the past few decades.
By Harriet Ryan and Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times / September 28, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Thirty-one years after he fled the United States when he was convicted of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, film director Roman Polanski was taken into custody in Zurich yesterday and could be extradited to Los Angeles.

Polanski, 76, a French citizen whose career continued to flourish after he moved to Europe, was arrested as he arrived in the Swiss city to accept an award at the Zurich Film Festival.

The Swiss Justice Ministry said US authorities had sought the arrest of the director around the world since 2005.

“There was a valid arrest request and we knew when he was coming,’’ said Guido Balmer, ministry spokesman.

A US appeals court in California is considering whether to overturn a Los Angeles judges’ refusal to throw out Polanski’s rape case. The director claims misconduct by Laurence J. Rittenband, the now-deceased judge who had arranged a plea bargain and then reneged on it.

Polanski’s victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago identified herself publicly, has joined in his bid for dismissal, saying she wants the case to be over. She sued Polanski and reached an undisclosed settlement.

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the director will remain in Zurich until the conclusion of the extradition proceedings. The United States has 60 days to file a formal request for Polanski’s transfer, she said.

A US Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington declined to comment on the case yesterday.

Polanski’s French lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France-Inter radio that it was too early to know whether Polanski will be extradited. “The proceedings must take their course,’’ he said yesterday. “For now we are trying to have the arrest warrant lifted in Zurich.’’

France does not extradite its citizens, and US authorities never asked France to prosecute Polanski at home.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office learned last week that Polanski planned to travel to Zurich this weekend, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors sent a provisional arrest warrant to the US Justice Department, which presented it to Swiss authorities.

On at least two previous occasions, the district attorney’s office has received reports that Polanski had travel arrangements to countries with extradition treaties with the United States and prepared paperwork for his arrest, Gibbons said.

“But in the end, he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,’’ she said.

A source familiar with the investigation said the US Marshals Service had come close to arresting Polanski a half-dozen times or so over the past few decades.

Polanski had asked the appellate court to throw out the case based on new allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct detailed in an HBO documentary last year. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office contended he could not make such a request while a fugitive, and a Los Angeles judge earlier this year agreed. A 1997 attempt at settling the case also failed.

Polanski was arrested in 1977 at a Beverly Hills hotel after a 13-year-old girl accused him of sexually assaulting her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. He pleaded guilty to statutory rape, but an arrest warrant was issued in 1978 after he failed to appear at his sentencing. Officials said the warrant is still in effect, and Polanski would be taken into custody upon his arrival on US soil.

The director of “Chinatown’’ and “Rosemary’s Baby’’ has not returned to the United States since then but continues to work as a director, winning an Oscar in 2003 for “The Pianist.’’

Polanski has lived for the past three decades in France. He is married to French actress Emanuelle Seigner, with whom he has two children.

Polanski’s stay in Switzerland could be brief if he opts to return to Los Angeles.

But if Polanski fights extradition - perhaps a more likely outcome given his three decades as a fugitive - the court process could last months, Balmer said.

Earlier this year, Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza in Los Angeles dismissed Polanski’s bid to throw out the case because the director failed to appear in court to press his request, but said there was “substantial misconduct’’ in the handling of the original case.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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