GENEVA – The Swiss government said Wednesday it acted correctly when it tipped off the United States last month and set in motion the arrest of Roman Polanski in his decades-old child sex case.
Justice Ministry spokesman Folco Galli said e-mails obtained in Los Angeles by The Associated Press show regular police procedure when a wanted individual is expected in Switzerland.
The documents obtained under a U.S. public records request show the Swiss ministry sent an urgent fax to the U.S. Office of International Affairs on Sept. 22 stating Polanski was traveling to Zurich. The director was to be feted at a film festival, and Swiss officials wanted to know if the U.S. would be submitting a request for his arrest as he was the subject of an international law enforcement "Red Notice."
"An arrest is a big operation and we needed to know if the warrant was still valid," Galli told the AP. "The Americans immediately confirmed that was the case."
As a result, Switzerland was required by treaty to apprehend Polanski, he said.
Galli also addressed the nagging question in Switzerland and elsewhere of why authorities decided to go after Polanski now, even though the 76-year-old filmmaker has been a frequent visitor here, where he owns an Alpine chalet. Unlike his previous visits, Polanski's appearance was widely advertised and that told authorities when and where he would arrive.
It took little sleuthing to figure out Polanski would be in Zurich — the film festival had a Web site promoting its upcoming tribute to the "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" director. But several Swiss politicians and political commentators have argued that Switzerland may have cooperated too energetically, and that recent U.S.-Swiss troubles over wealthy American tax cheats and Swiss banks may have provided motivation for the arrest.
Swiss authorities have adamantly rejected the suggestion.
"We have 20,000 warrant requests each year," Galli said, adding that this was the first time officials had precise details on the director's arrival and an official American request to arrest him.
After receiving the tip, U.S. federal officials alerted the Los Angeles district attorney's office, which immediately began drafting an arrest warrant. E-mails show U.S. authorities learned on Sept. 23 that Polanski was in Austria but officials doubted they could assemble an arrest warrant before Polanski had moved on to Switzerland.
Polanski was arrested three days later as he arrived in Zurich to receive a lifetime achievement award. He has been battling extradition ever since and on Tuesday suffered a serious setback when Switzerland's top criminal court rejected his appeal to be released from prison, citing the "high" risk that the director would try to flee again.
A Sept. 25 e-mail from the Office of International Affairs to the district attorney's office shows U.S. authorities seemed confident Polanski would not be released.
"Generally, Switzerland does not release fugitives sought for extradition," the e-mail states. "The default in Switzerland is that a fugitive will be detained until s/he is either extradited or determined by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court to be non-extraditable."
Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Justice, said she could not comment on any of the events leading up to Switzerland's fax to the United States.
"We don't comment on matters of extradition unless and until an individual is on U.S. soil," Sweeney said.
U.S. district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said it was not unusual for her office to receive information on fugitives' whereabouts, but she declined to comment further.
Polanski's lawyer, Herve Temime, also refused to discuss what Swiss initiation of the arrest might mean for his client, and his case seeking release.
Polanski's offers of bail, house arrest and electronic monitoring failed to sway the tribunal. Even his chalet in the luxury resort of Gstaad was brushed aside as insufficient collateral to guard against Polanski fleeing the country, as the court noted that "the appellant has already once in 1978 eluded American criminal proceedings by traveling to Europe."
Polanski was accused of plying a 13-year-old girl with champagne and part of a Quaalude pill during a modeling shoot in 1977 and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy.
He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse and fled amid a legal dispute over his sentence.
Polanski has until Oct. 29 to appeal the decision on his release. He also can continue attempts to persuade the Swiss Justice Ministry to release him. More court proceedings are expected after Washington files its formal extradition request, which it has until Nov. 25 to submit.
Legal experts said no path offered Polanski much hope for a speedy release from jail.
It is not clear how much time in jail Polanski faces now, either in Switzerland or in the United States. With appeals, the extradition process in Switzerland could take months. In the United States, Polanski fled before sentencing was complete and is expected to face additional penalties for jumping bail.