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PARIS (Reuters) - France's Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand questioned on Thursday whether film director Roman Polanski would get a fair hearing from the U.S. justice system, which is seeking his extradition on a 32-year-old sex case.
The "Chinatown" director, 76, was arrested in Switzerland on Sunday at the request of the United States for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. He had fled the United States on the eve of his sentencing in 1978, fearing a 50-year jail term.
"There are concerns over the absolutely incredible media lynching to which Roman Polanski was subjected 30 years ago," Mitterrand told a news conference in Paris.
"The manner in which the (legal) proceedings took place also raises a certain number of questions, to say the least," he said, referring to a debate stirred up by a 2008 documentary that suggested there had been judicial misconduct.
Mitterrand's comments are unlikely to go down well across the Atlantic after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday it was for judges to handle the case, dismissing a request from Paris that she intervene on Polanski's behalf.
After Sunday's arrest, Mitterrand immediately rushed to defend Polanski, who has dual French and Polish citizenship, accusing the United States of showing a "frightening" face by going after the Oscar-winning director after so long.
His comments, and similar remarks by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, drew widespread criticism that Polanski's achievements in film were no excuse and that the ministers were too hasty in demanding his release.
The French government changed its tone on Wednesday, describing the charge against the director as serious and stressing that Polanski was not above the law.
This has placed Mitterrand in an awkward position.
"It is the role of the culture minister to defend artists," he said, visibly annoyed at being questioned on the subject, though he described the charge against Polanski as "grave."
"It is a grave act for which there is no excuse and which calls for a sanction," he said, before giving his reasons for supporting the director.
"As a French citizen and also as a major artist, Roman Polanski deserves the solidarity and compassion of the culture minister of France, I think," he said.
Polanski was initially arrested in 1977 and charged with giving drugs and alcohol to the minor and having unlawful sex with her. He said the girl was experienced and had consented.
The victim has said she had forgiven him and did not wish to see him serve time in jail.
Polanski, who had made his name in the United States with the 1968 horror movie "Rosemary's Baby" and the 1974 thriller "Chinatown," has never returned to the country. He won the best director Oscar for his 2002 Holocaust drama "The Pianist."
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall