Switzerland released Roman Polanski from more than seven months of house arrest in his Alpine chalet yesterday after rejecting an American extradition request which would have returned him to the US to face charges of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
The surprise ruling, which appeared to accept the arguments of the Oscar-winning director's lawyers, meant that 76-year-old Polanski could finally rid himself of the electronic tag attached to his wrist late last year and leave his chalet in the resort town of Gstaad.
The Swiss Justice Minister, Eveline Widmer Schlumpf, said: "The Franco-Polish film-maker will not be extradited to the US and restrictions on his liberty have been lifted. He is a free man."
Bernard Henri-Levy, philosopher and a close friend, said: "Switzerland has found the path to reason ... What a beautiful lesson in democracy."
"The time for calm has come," said the French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand. "The difficult past, the rich personality, the universally admired works of Roman Polanski should all regain their standing."
There was no immediate response from Polanski, but it was believed that the director had returned to the home in Paris that he shares with the film actress Emanuelle Siegner, his wife of 20 years. Georges Kiejman, Polanski's lawyer, praised the decision: "I pay tribute to Swiss justice; its judicial analysis is very correct." The US Justice Department declined to comment.
The US authorities have spent 33 years trying to have the fugitive director returned to America stand trial for having unlawful sex with Samantha Geimer. There have been at least six failed attempts to extradite him since 1978. The incident took place in 1977 at the Hollywood Hills home of the actor Jack Nicholson during a photo shoot.
Polanski, who was originally charged with six offences in the case including rape and sodomy, pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex following a plea bargain. He subsequently spent 42 days in a psychiatric unit being assessed. However he fled the US in 1978 before being sentenced and has not returned since. In 2002, he was unable to collect an Oscar awarded for The Pianist because of his fugitive status.
On the basis of a US warrant for his extradition, the director was arrested at Zürich airport in September last year. He was allowed to move from prison to his Gstaad chalet last December after paying €3m in bail.
Mrs Widmer Schlumpf said Switzerland had decided to refuse the extradition request because the US justice authorities had refused to supply her ministry with key evidence. She said court records could have established whether the judge who tried the case in 1977 had assured the director that the 42 days he spent in a psychiatric unit would constitute the whole period of imprisonment he would serve.
"If this were the case Roman Polanski would have actually served his sentence and therefore both the proceedings on which the US extradition request is founded and the request itself would have no foundation," she said.
Polanski's victim, Ms Geimer, now 45, has called for the case to be dropped.
In May, Polanski published an open letter condemning the US authorities: "I can no longer remain silent because the US continues to demand my extradition more to serve me on a platter to the media of the world than to pronounce a judgment concerning which an agreement was reached 33 years ago," he declared.