US files Polanski extradition request

The United States has asked Switzerland to hand over Roman Polanski to authorities in California, where he could serve up to two years in prison for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement yesterday that Washington filed its formal extradition request late on Thursday. The 76-year-old filmmaker has been in Swiss custody since his arrest on 26 September as he arrived in Zurich to attend a film festival.



The request has been forwarded to Zurich authorities, who will hold a hearing on an unspecified date to decide whether Polanski should be sent back to Los Angeles. If extradition is approved, Polanski may appeal the decision to Switzerland's top criminal court and, theoretically, to the Federal Supreme Court.



That means the director of such film classics as "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" could remain in a Swiss jail for months more of legal wrangling, even though legal experts say he has little chance of avoiding a return to the United States after 31 years as a fugitive.



The maximum sentence Polanski can receive in California is likely two years, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said the sentence would come under laws that existed at the time of the crime, but she did not know if he could receive credit for time served in Swiss detention.



The Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined comment.



Folco Galli, a spokesman for Switzerland's Justice Ministry, said the sentence couldn't be longer because Polanski could only be punished for the crime that is the basis of his extradition.



In Paris, Polanski's lawyer said the director would fight extradition.



"He will oppose this request and continue to ask to be released until the request is examined," Herve Temime said.



The US had until late November to file for extradition, but the Swiss were already asking on 5 October that the Americans expedite the process.



Los Angeles prosecutors noted in an email exchange that the "Swiss were very eager to receive an advance English copy of our papers" and "the sooner that the Swiss knew we had filed formal papers the better."



There was no mention in correspondence of the intense public scrutiny over Polanski's arrest in the Alpine country, which tipped off US authorities that he was expected five days before his apprehension at Zurich's airport.



Swiss officials have defended the move as routine procedure. But several politicians and commentators have argued that Switzerland may have cooperated too energetically, and that recent US-Swiss troubles over wealthy American tax cheats and Swiss banks may have provided motivation for the arrest.



Polanski, who won a 2003 directing Oscar in absentia for "The Pianist," was accused of raping the 13-year-old girl after plying her with champagne and a Quaalude pill during a modeling shoot in 1977. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy.



Polanski pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse. In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and sentence him to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. Polanski was released after 42 days by an evaluator but the judge said he was going to send him back to serve the remainder of the 90 days. Polanski then fled the country on Feb. 1, 1978, the day he was to be sentenced.



Polanski claims the judge and prosecutors acted improperly, and his lawyers in California are urging a state court to quickly hear his appeal. In court filings yesterday, the lawyers said key witnesses in the case are now elderly and have yet to testify under oath.



A French native who moved to Poland as a child, Polanski has lived in France since fleeing the United States. France does not extradite its citizens.



Polanski has been fighting since his arrest to be released from jail. He suffered a serious setback earlier this week when the Swiss Criminal Court rejected his appeal because of the high risk he would flee justice again. It turned down a bail payment of his Alpine chalet in Gstaad, house arrest and electronic monitoring as conditions for his release.



The loss appeared to prompt some rethinking of his defense, when one of Polanski's lawyers said Wednesday that it was possible that the director might voluntarily return to face justice in the United States.



But that suggestion was quickly rejected by another attorney representing Polanski.

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