Possible mix-up over Polanski transcripts

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf wants property sales to non-resident foreigners tightened Keystone

Film director Roman Polanski may have been released by Switzerland after confusion over paperwork in the United States.

This content was published on July 16, 2010 - 13:31

On Thursday US prosecutors disputed who was responsible for an apparent miscommunication about sealed transcripts requested by the Swiss authorities.

The US Justice Department insists that it notified Los Angeles prosecutors about its decision to reject the Swiss request for access to confidential testimony about Polanski’s expected sentence for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

In a statement on Thursday, the department said the Los Angeles district attorney's office provided input and “approved all responses from the US government to Swiss authorities on this matter”, including one involving testimony that proved crucial in Switzerland's decision to free the director rather than extradite him to the US.

But a district attorney's spokeswoman, Sandi Gibbons, told Associated Press their office was “not specifically notified of the [Swiss] request” and did not know that the Justice Department had turned it down.

Guido Balmer, spokesman for the Swiss justice ministry, told “There could have been a misunderstanding in the US over this issue.”

On Monday Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the decision had been taken not to extradite the 76-year-old Oscar-winning director following Washington’s refusal to give access to these 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.

Swiss request

Switzerland officially asked the US Justice Department on May 5 for access to sealed private testimony by former Los Angeles prosecutor Roger Gunson, who was in charge of the unlawful sex case in the 1970s. Polanski admitted the offence and spent 42 days in jail on psychiatric assessment but fled the US before being sentenced.

The Swiss said they wanted to know whether Polanski had already served his sentence. Swiss extradition laws would allow him to be sent back to the US only if he was going to be required to serve at least six months in prison.

The Swiss believed Gunson’s testimony may have clarified that issue.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker’s American legal team had separately sought the release of the transcripts. On May 10 Judge Peter Espinoza of the Los Angeles County Superior Court rejected this request, citing, in part, a written assurance by the county prosecutor handling the case that the Swiss never sought the information.

“No conflict”

According to the Swiss, the US Justice Department gave them a written reply denying access to the testimony on May 13.

“In between our official request and their reply, I don’t know what happened,” said Balmer, adding that the US Justice Department had been their only point of contact over this matter.

On Thursday Gibbons said there was “no conflict between statements made by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the US Justice Department”.

But Loyola University law professor Stan Goldman felt the affair had been “an embarrassment” for the district attorney's office.

“It was they who were seeking to get Polanski back, and they have failed,” he told AP.

Polanski was arrested in September 2009 in Zurich on his way to a film festival, before being placed under house arrest in his Gstaad chalet. He is now said to have left the country for an unknown destination.

Chalet police

The Swiss justice ministry wants to prevent similar controversial legal cases.

Widmer-Schlumpf has asked officials to look into the possibility of tightening the so-called Lex Koller law, which governs property sales to non-resident foreigners, to make police background checks on foreign owners obligatory.

When Polanski bought the “Milky Way” chalet in Gstaad in 2006, he was the subject of an Interpol "red notice" for the 1977 sex case.

“In future, any property sales to foreigners should be checked to see if there is an international arrest warrant pending,” Balmer told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper on Wednesday.

The fact that Polanski had been coming to the country for years and owned a chalet in good faith were among the arguments used to reject his extradition.

Handing him over to US justice officials would have been contrary to the concept of protection of confidence, according to public international law.

Simon Bradley, and agencies

Where is Polanski?

It remains unclear where the Franco-Polish director is now staying. All indications are that he has left his chalet in Gstaad in the Bernese Oberland.

He could be in France, where he has citizenship and where his family lives. France, like most other countries, does not extradite its citizens.

Polanski has had little trouble travelling throughout Europe—until last September—although he has stayed away from Britain.

There is still an arrest warrant out for Polanski, so he is effectively banned from the US.

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Extradition requests

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.

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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.

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