France condemns 'sinister' arrest of Polanski

Foreign minister demands answers from US as Hollywood stars plead for release of director held over sex with 13-year-old

The fate of the Franco-Polish film director Roman Polanski became an international cause célèbre yesterday as Paris, Warsaw and an extensive cast of figures from world cinema demanded his immediate release from a Swiss jail.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, protested formally to both the US and Swiss authorities against Mr Polanski's arrest in Zurich on Saturday for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in California in 1977. Mr Kouchner described the circumstances of the arrest, on an American warrant, as "a little sinister".

The French and Polish foreign ministers later appealed in writing to the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to intervene and called for Mr Polanski's release on bail. The 76-year-old film director's lawyer, Herve Temime, said that he would fight extradition in the Swiss courts – something that might take up to six months. He added that his client, despite being "stunned" by the arrest, was "in fighting mood and determined to defend himself".

Petitions from leading film directors and other cinema figures, including one signed by the celebrated Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, focused most of their anger on the Swiss authorities. The fact that the Polish-born Mr Polanski was arrested as he arrived to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich film festival was, they said, "a provocation".

A leading French director, Bertrand Tavernier, said: "The Swiss are extraordinary. Here is a law which is supposed to combat drug-trafficking and tax evasion and the first victim they pick on is an artist."

The Swiss Economy Minister, Doris Leuthard, rejected suggestions that the arrest was intended to ease strained relations between Switzerland and the US. An extradition treaty between Washington and Berne obliged Switzerland to act, without question, on any arrest warrant issued by the US authorities, she said. The international outcry on Mr Polanski's behalf implied that there should be a law for ordinary people and another for celebrated film directors, she suggested.

"The Americans strongly believe that the arrest of Mr Polanski is necessary," she said. "That's for them to decide. Switzerland is simply a state where the police functions and where we treat all people in the same way."

Mr Polanski – the award-winning director of Rosemary's Baby, Cul-de-Sac, Chinatown and The Pianist – fled the US in 1978. He had admitted having sex with a 13-year-old at the home of the actor Jack Nicholson but insisted that the girl had consented.

After accepting a plea bargain for a short sentence of "time already served", Mr Polanski became convinced that the court and prosecution in Los Angeles was about to renege on the deal. He fled to France where he has lived ever since. His victim, Samantha Geimer, who reached a civil settlement with Mr Polanski for an undisclosed sum, called last year for the case to be dropped.

The French and Polish governments jointly appealed yesterday for Mr Polanski to be released on bail. The Swiss justice ministry said that this possibility was "not entirely excluded" so long as Mr Polanski promised to remain within Switzerland.

In a radio interview, the French Foreign Minister, Mr Kouchner, said that the Californian and Swiss authorities had acted unreasonably. "It's a little sinister, this business, to be quite frank," Mr Kouchner said. "A man of such talent, recognised throughout the world ... All this is not nice."

The jury of the Zurich film festival – accused of failing to react strongly enough at the weekend – accused the Swiss government of "philistine collusion" with the US.

The jury's president, the American actress Debra Winger, said: "[The arrest] is based on a three-decade-old case that is all but dead but for minor technicalities."

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