Q & A: The Roman Polanski case. Why now?

If Polanski has a chalet in Switzerland, why was he arrested this weekend? Why not years ago?

By , International editor

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    File photo of film director Roman Polanski presenting his musical 'Tanz der Vampire' ('Dance of the Vampires') in Oberhausen September 29, 2008. Polanski was arrested on his arrival in Switzerland September 26, 2009, at the request of U.S. authorities for a 1978 warrant. He was due to receive an award at the Zurich Film Festival today.
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As an editor, and a father, here are some of the questions I'd like answered about award-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland this weekend. I've done some digging, but there's more to do.

What's the expiration date on a statutory rape conviction?

In 1977, Mr. Polanski pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault of a minor. He drugged and had sex with a 13-year old girl. A Los Angeles judge sent him to 42 days in prison while he had psychological testing – and waited for his sentence. On the eve of his actual sentencing, Polanski heard from his lawyers that the judge was considering sentencing him to another 48 days in prison – maybe longer. So, Polanski jumped bail, and fled to France.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

48 days for rape?

The average sentence imposed in a US federal rape case was 124 months (more 10 years) according to a 1993 study for Congress. The average statutory rape conviction: 37 months (3 years).

Isn't 30 years as a fugitive – unable to travel to the US – punishment enough?

The Zurich Film Festival jury thinks so. They put on red badges that said "Free Polanski" and held a press conference seeking his release.

"We hope today this latest order will be dropped. It is based on a three-decade-old case that is all but dead but for minor technicalities," said jury president Debra Winger, according to Reuters. "We stand by and wait for his release and his next masterwork."

Why did Swiss authorities act now?

That's a bit murky.

Polanski reportedly has a chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. He's been there for several months this year, his lawyer told the French daily Le Parisien. That would seem to imply that the Swiss have been tuning a blind eye to the outstanding US warrant for three decades.

Why now?

There's plenty of speculation on this one. L.A. County officials says that it was widely advertised that Polanski would be in Zurich at the film festival to pick up a "lifetime achievement award." They contacted Swiss authorities and asked them to arrest Polanski if he showed.

Fearing imprisonment, Polanski did not show up in Los Angeles in 2002 to pick up his "Best Director" Oscar for "The Pianst."

Polanski's lawyers tried to get the case thrown out earlier this year. But an L.A. judge, while agreeing that there was "substantial misconduct" in the original trial, wouldn't drop the case unless Polanski showed for a hearing. He didn't.

Still, some think this is about international politics. Swiss bank secrecy laws took a big hit in the UBS tax evasion case. In August, the Swiss bank paid a $780 million fine and gave the IRS the names of 4,450 Americans stashing cash in Swiss accounts (read about it here).

Some say the Polanski arrest is intended to get the US government off its back.

The Swiss deny any quid pro quo: “There was a valid arrest request and we knew when he was coming. That’s why he was taken into custody,” Swiss Justice spokesman Guido Balmer told The Associated Press. “There is no link with any other issues.”

Why didn't French authorities arrest him? Does the US have an extradition treaty with France?

The US and France signed an extradition treaty in 1996. The US Congress ratified it in 1997. It's not clear why France never extradited Polanski. But it may have to do with the fact that he's got dual French-Polish citizenship. Or, that the French think this is a witch hunt, too.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called his detention a “bit sinister.” He and the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and called Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey about the case.

Our Europe bureau chief is looking into this. Stay tuned.

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