Swiss press divided over Polanski release

The Swiss press had mixed reactions to the release of Roman Polanski swissinfo.ch

French-language newspapers in Switzerland have welcomed the release of film director Roman Polanski and the demonstration of Swiss legal independence.

This content was published on July 13, 2010 - 10:05

However, most of their German-speaking colleagues consider the decision a political act – despite the justice minister’s denials – and are concerned by the special treatment reserved for a celebrity.

“Should we be happy about the release of Roman Polanski?” asked Lausanne’s Le Matin. “Yes. For us, the affair is over and Switzerland can lift its head thanks to the independence of [Justice Minister] Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf.”

On Monday the Swiss authorities decided not to extradite the 76-year old Oscar-winning director to the United States to face prosecution in a 1977 sex case.

Widmer-Schlumpf said the decision had been taken following Washington’s refusal to give access to confidential documents.

“Since the US had been playing games, Widmer-Schlumpf had no choice other than to reject the extradition request,” said the Südostschweiz, adding that the decision was true to the principle of giving the accused the benefit of the doubt.

It described Polanski’s release as “an ultimately logical decision”.

Tabloid Blick agreed. “The Yanks will no doubt moan, but we don’t owe them anything.”

The director was arrested last September in Zurich and had been under house arrest in his Swiss chalet in Gstaad.

Lausanne paper 24 Heures spoke of a “double demonstration of independence” following Polanski’s arrest and subsequent release.

The affair showed that Switzerland could “maintain its independence when applying the law”, according to Le Quotidien Jurassien.

“Brave and fair”

For Le Temps in Geneva, the “brave and fair” decision showed “it was wrong to arrest [Polanski] under these conditions – on the initiative of an official who had alerted the United States”.

“The ‘prisoner’ of Gstaad is free,” was its headline.

Der Bund in Bern also spoke of a “good” decision, saying the justice minister had acted from a legal rather than a political point of view.

This, it said, could have positive consequences. “Everyone involved – the Swiss authorities, but also those in the US – could save face.”

La Liberté in Fribourg was more qualified in its reaction. Widmer-Schlumpf had justified both the arrest and release with legal arguments – “the law is clearly very elastic”.

“Once again the Swiss main aim was to get out of a tricky spot,” it wrote. “That reminds one of the Gaddafi affair [involving Swiss hostages held in Tripoli]. Switzerland wanted to show that it applies the same law to everyone, but once again ended up backing down.”

The Tribune de Genève was one of the few French-language papers to raise doubts.

On the one hand, it wondered whether it had been a “pointless detention” – Polanski had after all been released – but it also pointed out that there still remained a victim “who was 13 at the time”.

Political decision

Most German-speaking papers saw Widmer-Schlumpf’s decision as politically motivated.

“Not everyone is equal,” was the headline in the Neue Luzerner Zeitung. “If the protagonist in this drama hadn’t been Roman Polanski but an unknown actor, he’d now be standing before a US court.”

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung agreed, echoing George Orwell. “Ultimately, one has to admit that when it comes to higher-ranking interests before the law, not everyone is equal. Some are more equal than others.”

The Landbote in Winterthur wondered what would have happened had Polanski been a priest found guilty of sexual abuse 33 years ago.

Widmer-Schlumpf denied Switzerland had acted under pressure and said 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.

However, the Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich wrote about a “legally dodgy decision”. It hoped that checking the contents of extradition requests would in future also benefit people “who don’t have the lobbyists of the world-famous director”.

The last word goes to Paul the psychic octopus, currently celebrating a remarkable 100 per cent prediction rate at the football World Cup. In a cartoon on the front page of the Tages-Anzeiger, beneath the question “where will Polanski be arrested next?” a bored-looking Paul is seen having to choose between the United States and Britain.

Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch

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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Roman Polanski

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.

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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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