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Roman Polanski arrest becomes an international incident [Updated]

September 28, 2009 |  7:09 am

The arrest of Roman Polanski has become an international incident, with France and Poland demanding that the famed director be released on bail and questioning why he was taken into custody.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office wants Polanski extradited to face charges that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl 30 years ago.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France-Inter radio that he and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Polanski be released on bail, calling his arrest  a "bit sinister."

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand was quoted in French media as saying, "In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face."

Swiss authorities told the Associated Press that bail has not been ruled out, but the director would have to stay in Switzerland.

Robert Harris, a British novelist who had worked with Polanski, said in a statement that he believed the arrest was "politically motivated." "I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion," he said.

Polanski's decision to attend the Zurich 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  of a Hollywood fugitive.

When the 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 county district attorney's office, which prosecuted Polanski 32 years ago for the sexual assault 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 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.

[Updated at 7:23 a.m.: Temime told ABC's "Good Morning America" that Polanski would fight extradition. "He wants to struggle, and I think it will be possible for us to maintain his freedom," he said.]

"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.

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.

For the next decade, Polanski made no public attempts to resolve the case. He won the Academy Award for best director for 2002's "The Pianist," but was not at the ceremony despite Geimer's call for authorities to permit him to attend.

-- Harriet Ryan

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