- Associated Press - Monday, July 12, 2010

GSTAAD, SWITZERLAND (AP) - In a stunning ruling, Roman Polanski was declared a free man on Monday _ no longer confined to house arrest in his Alpine villa after Swiss authorities rejected a U.S. request for his extradition because of a 32-year-old sex conviction.

The decision left the Oscar-winning director free to return to France and the life of a celebrity, albeit one unable to visit the United States.

Hours after the ruling was announced, Polanski’s assistant said he had left his multimillion-dollar chalet with his family. Half-empty glasses seen on a back porch testified to a hasty exit.

Mr. Polanski can now move freely,” Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf declared. “He’s a free man.”

Switzerland, which arrested the 76-year-old Polanski last September as he arrived receive a lifetime achievement award at a Zurich film festival, blamed U.S. authorities for its decision, citing a possible “fault in the U.S. extradition request.”

The United States failed to provide confidential testimony to refute defense arguments the filmmaker had actually served his sentence before fleeing Los Angeles three decades ago, Widmer-Schlumpf said.

The Swiss decision for now ends the United States‘ long pursuit of Polanski, who has been a fugitive since fleeing sentencing for having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl. But Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office will try again to have Polanski extradited if he is arrested in another country with a favorable extradition treaty.

Beyond the legal issue, the extradition request was complicated and diplomatically sensitive because of Polanski’s status as a cultural icon in France and Poland, where he holds dual citizenship, and his history as a Holocaust survivor whose first wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by followers of cult leader Charles Manson in California.

France, where the filmmaker has spent much of his time, does not extradite its own citizens and Polanski has had little trouble traveling throughout Europe _ although he has stayed away from Britain.

The U.S. cannot appeal the decision, but Polanski is still a fugitive in the United States.

“That warrant remains outstanding,” Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini said, adding that Polanski could be arrested and sent to the U.S. if he traveled to another country that has an extradition treaty with the United States.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Obama administration was disappointed by the Swiss action. “The United States believes that the rape of a 13-year-old child by an adult is a crime, and we continue to pursue justice in this case,” Crowley said.

In Los Angeles, Cooley, who is running for state attorney general, called the decision a “disservice to justice and other victims as a whole.” He accused the Swiss of using the issue of the confidential testimony as an excuse to set Polanski free.

“To justify their finding to deny extradition on an issue that is unique to California law regarding conditional examination of a potentially unavailable witness is a rejection of the competency of the California courts,” Cooley said. “The Swiss could not have found a smaller hook on which to hang their hat.”

A top Justice Department official said the U.S. extradition request was completely supported by treaty, facts and the law. The department is “deeply disappointed” by the Swiss rejection and will review its options, said Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general in charge of the department’s criminal division.

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