ZURICH/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fugitive director Roman Polanski, whose tumultuous life has overshadowed his film career, was arrested this weekend in Zurich after U.S. authorities sought to have him extradited to face sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Polanski, 76, was taken into custody on Saturday after arriving in Switzerland to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival the next day.
Amid protests from his native France and from his former homeland of Poland, he now faces a court battle over extradition, and perhaps even a new trial in Los Angeles.
“Some form of justice will finally be done,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. “He received a very, very, very lenient sentence back then, which would never be achievable under today’s laws, and we’ll see what the court wants to do in terms of the sentence and the parameters within the case settlement they had back then.”
He did not say what sentence prosecutors would recommend.
Polanski fled the United States on the eve of his 1978 sentencing because he believed a judge might overrule his plea and put him in jail for 50 years. But a 2008 film documentary has prompted new questions of judicial misconduct, and his lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to get his case dismissed.
Polanski has avoided countries such as Britain that have extradition treaties with the United States. He has never returned to Los Angeles, where his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand was “stunned” to hear about the arrest, his office said, adding President Nicolas Sarkozy was following the case and hoped the matter could be resolved, allowing Polanski to return to his family.
“We are going to try to lift the arrest warrant in Zurich ... the (extradition) convention between Switzerland and the United States is not very clear,” Polanski’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told France Info radio.
Another lawyer, Herve Temime, was quoted as telling French newspaper Le Figaro that Polanski has regularly visited Switzerland and even owns a chalet in a ski village.
Los Angeles County District Attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said her office learned last week Polanski would be in Zurich and sent a provisional arrest warrant to the Swiss.
The Swiss Federal Justice Department said the extradition warrant and any final decision could be challenged in court.
Polanski was initially arrested in the United States in 1977 and charged with giving drugs and alcohol to the minor and having unlawful sex with her at actor Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood home. Nicholson was not in the house at the time.
The director maintained the girl was sexually experienced and consented. Polanski spent 42 days in prison undergoing psychiatric tests and eventually agreed to plead guilty and receive a sentence of time served.
The case was the subject of a 2008 film documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” that included interviews with the victim, Samantha Geimer of Hawaii, and lawyers for both sides.
It argues, in part, that Polanski was the victim of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. In a 2008 interview, Geimer told Reuters Polanski should not face any jail time.
Based on what they said was new evidence in the film, Polanski’s lawyers tried to have the case dismissed, but were denied their attempt earlier this year by a Los Angeles judge.
Los Angeles criminal defense specialist Steve Cron, who is unaffiliated with the case, said Polanski’s attorneys might now agree to extradition believing the charges could be dropped.
Born to Polish-Jewish parents in 1933, Polanski’s family were Holocaust victims, although he survived to become a brilliant filmmaker.
His first full-length feature, “Knife in the Water,” won a number of awards, and his reputation grew with “Repulsion,” his study of a woman terrified by sex who becomes a murderer.
Polanski scored a huge hit in the United States with 1968 horror thriller “Rosemary’s Baby,” and another with 1974’s Chinatown,” a stylish thriller starring Nicholson that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.
“Tess” (1979) also earned him an Oscar nomination, and Polanski finally won his only best director Oscar for 2002 film “The Pianist,” the story of a Jewish-Polish musician who sees his world collapse with the outbreak of World War Two.
Polanski is married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner with whom he has two children.
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris, Nicole Maestri in San Francisco and Bob Tourtellotte in Los Angeles; Writing by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Chris Wilson