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updated 7/12/2010 7:31:01 PM ET 2010-07-12T23:31:01

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.

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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.

Still a fugitive
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.

A 'disservice to justice'
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.

The decision drew cheers and jeers on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The great Franco-Polish director can now freely rediscover his loved ones and devote himself fully to the pursuit of his artistic activities," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

His Polish counterpart Radek Sikorski expressed satisfaction with the Swiss decision, saying that "a solution was found that respects the complex legal considerations and personal circumstances of the case of Mr. Polanski."

'A free man'
At Polanski's multi-million dollar Alpine chalet the shutters were open but there was no sign of movement inside hours after the Swiss decision was announced.

A woman who answered the intercom and identified herself only as "Mr. Polanski's assistant" said the director had left with his wife and two young children, Morgane and Elvis. She declined to say where Polanski had gone or whether he would return.

Glasses stood half-empty glasses on the porch, where neighbors say Polanski was having a meal around noon.

Asked whether Polanski had left the home after being freed Monday from the electronic tags that monitored his movements during his house arrest on $4.5 million bail, a police spokeswoman, Ursula Stauffer, said: "Mr. Polanski is a free man. It's not the job of the police to keep track of his movements."

Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss justice minister, said the decision was not meant to excuse Polanski's crime, adding the issue was "not about deciding whether he is guilty or not guilty."

The government said extradition had to be rejected "considering the persisting doubts concerning the presentation of the facts of the case."

In justifying the decision, Switzerland also invoked what it called the "public order" — a lofty notion meaning that governments should ensure their citizens are safe from arbitrary abuse of the law.

The Justice Ministry cited the fact that U.S. authorities hadn't pursued Polanski in Switzerland previously, even though he's often visited the country and bought a house here in 2006. It also stressed that the victim, Samantha Geimer, who long ago publicly identified herself, has joined in Polanski's bid for dismissal.

Case dates to 1977
The acclaimed director of "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist" was accused of plying his victim with champagne and part of a Quaalude during a 1977 modeling shoot and raping her. He was initially indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molesting and sodomy, but pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse.

In exchange, the judge agreed to drop the remaining charges and sentence him to prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation. However, he was released after 42 days by an evaluator who deemed him mentally sound and unlikely to offend again.

The judge responded by saying he was going to send Polanski back to jail for the remainder of the 90 days and that afterward he would ask Polanski to agree to a "voluntary deportation." Polanski then fled the country on the eve of his Feb. 1, 1978, sentencing.

The office of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley did not issue any statement about the Swiss decision and he did not return a message seeking comment.

Reaction was varied among Los Angeles' legal community, ranging from those who saw the Swiss decision as a slap in the face to others who thought the efforts by Cooley's office to prosecute Polanski were too late.

"Polanski got away with a lot, but it's not all black and white," said Loyola Law School professor Stan Goldman. "I don't see the D.A. rushing to investigate the very palpable evidence of misconduct in the original case. And the victim said they were hurting her every time they brought this up. So there are many shades of gray."

University of Southern California Law School professor Jean Rosenbluth said that while extradition requests are overwhelmingly approved, the Polanski case presented several difficult issues.

The Swiss had wide latitude to make a decision, and there were a variety of competing interests, said Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor who has handled extradition cases.

"In my opinion they wanted to release him and looked for some grounds to support the release," defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. said. "It's a clear affront to the United States and the Los Angeles County District Attorney."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Swiss reject Polanski extradition to U.S.

  1. Transcript of: Swiss reject Polanski extradition to U.S.

    ANN CURRY, anchor: Prosecutors in the US say that they are disappointed but not deterred by Switzerland 's refusal Monday to extradite fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski . We get details now from NBC 's Stephanie Gosk .

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: An award-winning director and Hollywood heavyweight, Roman Polanski has been a wanted man for more than 30 years. Officials in Los Angeles and Washington say they are shocked by Switzerland 's decision to set him free.

    Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (State Department Spokesman): A 13 -year-old girl was drugged and raped by an adult.

    GOSK: Polanski fled the US in 1978 to avoid sentencing for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. Five other charges were dropped in a plea deal, including rape by use of drugs.

    Ms. ROBIN SAX (Former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney): I was flabbergasted, actually, that the Swiss officials made the decision that they were not going to participate in extradition.

    GOSK: Family and other supporters maintain that the director's arrest last September in Zurich was a miscarriage of justice. Bernard-Henri Levy , a close friend, spoke with Polanski .

    Mr. BERNARD-HENRI LEVY (Polanski Supporter): Of course there is a bitterness from Mr. Polanski and his family because of these 10 month of his life stolen.

    GOSK: But the acclaimed director is not entirely free. If he is arrested somewhere else, a Los Angeles district attorney says his office will try to extradite Polanski again. Stephanie Gosk, NBC News, New York.

Photos: Roman Polanski’s life, career

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  1. Love lost

    Roman Polanski, the French film director of Polish origin, poses with his wife, American actress Sharon Tate, in London in the 1960s. In 1969, a pregnant Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. French legend

    Polanski, left, is seen with French actress Catherine Deneuve and producer Eugene Gutowski in London on Aug. 17, 1964. Deneuve was about to star in Polanski's film "Repulsion." (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hollywood mark

    Actress Mia Farrow stars in Polanski's 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby." The director established his reputation as a major commercial filmmaker with the success of the film about a woman whose pregnancy is awash in horror and satanic doings. Polanski's screenplay adaptation earned him an Academy Award nomination. (Paramount Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Violent Shakespeare

    Polanski, left, takes part in a news conference with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner on Aug. 2, 1970, concerning their planned film production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The bleak and violent film was Polanski's first feature following his wife's murder. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Behind the camera

    Polanski is seen on location shooting Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' in Northumberland, England, in 1970. (Ian Tyas / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Major success

    Actress Faye Dunaway takes instructions from Polanski on the set of "Chinatown." Polanski returned to Hollywood in 1973 to make the classic detective story. A major critical and box office succes in the summer of 1974, the film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Stars Jack Nicholson and Dunaway both received Oscar nominations for their roles, but screenwriter Robert Towne won the lone Oscar for the film. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Legal trouble

    Polanski leaves court in Santa Monica, Calif., in September 1977. The director was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl he photographed during a modeling session at Nicholson's home in Los Angeles. In a deal with prosecutors, Polanski pled guilty to one of six charges against him, unlawful sexual intercourse, and was sent to prison for 42 days of psychological evaluation. Faced with the prospect of further prison time, Polanski fled the country in 1978, living as an exile in France. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Another thriller

    Polanski's film career grew fitful as financing became harder to securein the early '80s. He remained busy with theater and opera productions in Europe but proved he could still land major film stars with 1988's "Frantic," starring Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner, whom Polanski would marry in 1989. (Warner Bros. Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cannes carpet

    Polanski and Seigner arrive at the gala screening of his film "The Pianist" during the 55th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 24, 2002. The couple have two children together. (Francois Guillot / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Oscar winner

    "The Pianist" tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who, during World War II, lived in the Warsaw ghettos. He escaped from Nazi concentration camps, and, thanks to music, lived to tell about it. The film is based on Szpilman's memoir, published in 1946. Brody won an Oscar for his role. (Studio Canal) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. His story

    Polanski celebrates after being awarded the Golden Palm for "The Pianist" during the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival on May 26, 2002. The story "was something I know about, remember very well, something that could help me recreate the events without talking about myself," Polanski said at Cannes. (Olivier Laban-Mattei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Special delivery

    Polanski, right, shows off his Academy Award for best director for "The Pianist" which he received from Harrison Ford during the American Film festival in Deauville, France, on Sept. 7, 2003. Polanski could not receive the award at the actual Oscar ceremony because he was still wanted in the United States. (Mychele Daniau / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. His own 'Twist'

    Polanski followed "The Pianist" with the 2005 Charles Dickens adaptation, "Oliver Twist." (TriStar Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Something to sink his teeth into

    Polanski poses with an actor during a news conference to present his musical "Dance of the Vampires" in Berlin, Germany, on Oct. 11, 2006. (Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Enough is enough

    Polanski angrily leaves a news conference at the 60th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2007, during a gathering of equally renowned peers. The director told journalists that their questions about an anthology of short films the filmmakers had all worked on were pathetic. (Fred Dufour / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wave for 'W.'

    Polanski waves on the red carpet before a screening of director Oliver Stone's film "W." at the Turin Film Festival in Turin, Italy, on Nov. 21, 2008. (Massimo Pinca / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. New documentary

    Polanski is seen in Oberhausen, Germany, on Sept. 29, 2008. That year, the Emmy-winning documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" debuts at the Sundance Film Festival, reigniting the debate over the case against the director. The documentary uncovers new information about actions by the late Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, suggesting he inappropriately consulted with a prosecutor not assigned to the case. (Roberto Pfeil / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Still shooting

    Polanski is seen during the shooting of his film "The Ghost" in List on Sylt, Germany, on Feb. 23, 2009. The story centers on a ghostwriter who is hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister. He uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy. Most of the story takes place in an oceanfront house during the middle of winter. (Georg Supanz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: SWITZERLAND-US-POLANSKI-CRIME
    AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) Roman Polanski’s life, career
  2. Taylor Jones, El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico / Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (8) Roman Polanski in cartoons

Timeline: Roman Polanski: Tragedy, scandal and success

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