The Swiss authorities have decided not to extradite film director Roman Polanski to the United States to face prosecution in a 1977 sex case.
The 76-year old Oscar-winning director, who was arrested last September in Zurich and had been under house arrest in Switzerland, is a free man, according to Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.
The US has expressed its disappointment over the move.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the decision had been taken following Washington’s refusal to give access to confidential documents.
“In these circumstances it was not possible to exclude with the necessary certainty that Roman Polanski had already served the sentence to which he was condemned at the time," Widmer-Schlumpf told a news conference in the capital, Bern, on Monday.
She added that Switzerland had also decided against extradition because Polanski had been coming to the country in good faith for years.
Switzerland had sought access to the records of a hearing by a Los Angeles public prosecutor, Roger Gunson, who was in charge of the case in the 1970s.
Polanski, who had pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse at the time, claimed he feared that a judge might put him in jail for 50 years in violation of a plea bargain.
Initially the justice authorities had apparently agreed to drop other charges, including rape and sodomy, in exchange for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation from which Polanski was released early.
The director, who holds French and Polish citizenship, fled the US on the eve of his sentencing. He has lived as a fugitive in Europe ever since and bought a chalet in the Swiss mountain resort of Gstaad in 2006.
No ruling on crime
“This is not about qualifying a crime. This is not about deciding on guilt or innocence,” Widmer-Schlumpf said.
She added that Switzerland had not acted under pressure and her decision was not linked to political issues, notably to a deal with the US over the UBS bank in a tax dispute, or to an agreement to grant asylum to two inmates from Guantánamo prison on humanitarian grounds earlier this year.
Widmer-Schlumpf said she did not expect Washington to appeal against the decision internationally or for bilateral relations to be tarnished as a result.
The US authorities have accepted the legal conclusions, said the minister.
She added that she was confident that the American public would understand the Swiss decision.
“The US have a similar system, notably where basic rights are involved,” said the minister.
Polanski could file for financial compensation, having spent a short stint in jail after his arrest last September before he was put under house arrest in his Gstaad chalet. He also had to deposit SFr4.5 million ($4.2 million) for bail.
However, Widmer-Schlumpf considers a compensation payment rather unlikely.
The justice minister also said she stood by the arrest of Polanski – on a US warrant – upon his arrival at the international film festival in Zurich last September where he was due to receive a lifetime achievement award.
It had not been confirmed on Monday evening whether Polanski was still in Gstaad, although journalists at the scene had reported that the filmmaker had left.
Relief and disappointment
Monday’s announcement follows months of uncertainty over whether Polanski would have to return to the US.
Speaking through one of his lawyers, Hervé Témime, Polanski thanked all those who had supported him. The film director does not want to comment directly on the case, Témime said.
For her part, Polanski’s wife, actress and singer Emmanuelle Seigner, told the AFP news agency in a statement that her husband’s release was, “the end of a nightmare lasting more than nine months”.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had contacted his Swiss counterpart Micheline Calmy-Rey to express his "great relief". Poland has also thanked Switzerland for its "clever decision".
However, US Department of State spokesman Philip Crowley said on Monday that the US was "disappointed" over the outcome of the Polanski case. He said the country would continue to seek justice in the affair and would evaluate its options.
In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose office has fought for years to have Polanski returned, said authorities would seek extradition again, "if he's arrested in a cooperative jurisdiction".
Film industry pleased
Polanski’s arrest had prompted an outcry in the global film industry.
Representatives of the Swiss film world, including Frédéric Maire of the Swiss Film Archive, have welcomed the film director’s release.
He said the government had proved its independence from Washington, according to the Swiss News Agency.
Swiss filmmakers had described Polanski’s arrest as "not only a grotesque farce of justice, but also an immense cultural scandal".
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch and agencies
Polanski case: timeline
Mar 1977: Roman Polanski, 43, has sexual intercourse with Samantha Geimer, 13.
Apr: Polanski pleads not guilty at trial for rape then in August changes plea to guilty of statutory rape; sentenced to 3 months jail for psychiatric tests.
Jan 1978: Flees to Paris, judge then refuses to give verdict in absentia.
Aug 1994: Prosecutor refuses to dismiss case unless Polanski appears in court. Polanski had already ended the civil case by paying Geimer $225,000.
Dec 2008: Polanski lawyers call for case to be dropped over original trial's unfairness.
Sep 26, 2009: Polanski arrested on arrival at Zurich airport.
Sep 28: Appeals against extradition request; receives wide support from film world and French politicians and intellectuals.
Oct 6: Federal Justice Office refuses to release him.
Oct 23: US formally requests extradition.
Nov 25: Swiss court agrees to house arrest in Gstaad on bail of SFr4.5 million.
Dec 4: Polanski moves to Gstaad chalet, wearing electronic surveillance bracelet.
Jan 2010: Los Angeles court rejects request for trial in absentia, a decision confirmed by appeal court in April.
July 12: Swiss justice minister announces rejection of extradition request.
Born Raymond Polanski to Polish-Jewish parents on August 18, 1933, he spent the first three years of his life in Paris before the family returned to Poland.
He escaped from the Jewish ghetto in Krakow in 1940 as the Germans sealed it off. His mother later died in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
His first full-length feature film after graduation, Knife in the Water, won a number of awards.
In 1969, Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and six others were brutally murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson.
Polanski won a best director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 as well as the Cannes film festival's coveted Palme d'Or for the same film the year before.
Switzerland handles about 200 extradition requests, including five from the US, every year.
Of the total, about one in two cases are contested according to the justice ministry.
Only 5% of requests are rejected.