Switzerland's decision to reject a U.S. extradition request for director Roman Polanski may have shown that legal principles are paramount here but also left the impression that the rich and famous enjoy special privileges, Swiss newspapers opined Tuesday.
Long known for the low tax rates it offers the super-wealthy, Switzerland set a remarkable legal precedent, as authorities broke with tradition by analyzing far more than the formalities of the American request, delving deep into allegations of mishandled justice by Los Angeles authorities.
The Swiss government may have had a strong case for its action — to guard against complicity in what was interpreted as an unjustified U.S. pursuit — but the move left authorities open to claims of favoritism.
"If the main character in this drama hadn't been Roman Polanski, but an unknown amateur actor, he would now be standing before a U.S. court," the daily Neue Luzerner Zeitung said in an opinion piece.
Polanski's whereabouts were unknown Tuesday, a day after his sudden release. His wife, French singer Emmanuelle Seigner, is scheduled to perform at the Montreux jazz festival in western Switzerland on Saturday, and her husband may now join her.
Polanski's future plans were are unclear, but people close to the filmmaker have said he was looking into directing a movie version of the Broadway show "God of Carnage."
Many Swiss political commentators saw the government's decision as an understandable attempt to uphold the spirit of Swiss law while weighing all the confusion in Polanski's 33-year-old child sex case. No person should be punished twice for the same crime, they argue.
Yet several newspapers were skeptical of the Justice Ministry's explanations for why it rejected the extradition request.
Should U.S. have had final say?
Switzerland questioned the validity of the entire U.S. legal system to rescue Polanski from the threat of arbitrary law. Yet in such cases, the norm has long been that a suspect should be handed over to the country where he is wanted, and his case should be handled in the legal system where he committed the crime.
If Polanski has already served his sentence, as his lawyers claim, shouldn't a U.S. judge be best placed to answer that question?
"This was an admission that when higher interests are at stake, not everyone is equal before the law," the widely respected Neue Zuercher Zeitung wrote. "Some are a bit more equal."
Another Zurich paper, the Tages-Anzeiger, called the Swiss decision "shaky."
"It breaks with the tradition of only examining the formal correctness of extradition requests," it said. "Perhaps the new practice will in the future also benefit detainees who have less of a lobby than the world-famous director."
Switzerland's unique approach to handling Polanski's case did raise questions about fairness. The Swiss investigated Polanski's history for over nine months and allowed him to spend most of his time in "detention" at his stately Swiss chalet, while many common criminals might have been stuck in a prison or shipped off as quickly as possible.
Guido Balmer, a Justice Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday that Polanski may even receive a settlement for the time he spent under house arrest — even if it was the 76-year-old director's battle against extradition that prolonged the process.
"The question of compensation must be cleared up," Balmer told The Associated Press.
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. He was released after 42 days by an evaluator who deemed him mentally sound and unlikely to offend again, but the judge threatened further sanctions and Polanski fled the country on the eve of his Feb. 1, 1978, sentencing.
Switzerland is still reeling from an embarrassing scandal involving its biggest bank, UBS AG, and a settlement with the United States that forces it to hand over thousands of files on suspected tax cheats. In that saga, the Alpine nation fiercely defended its status as a safe haven for wealthy investors — and their declared or undeclared cash — until U.S. pressure proved too great.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf on Tuesday insisted the UBS tax case and Polanski's decision weren't linked, but many saw the Swiss defiance on Polanski as symbolic of a newfound assuredness in relations with a much more powerful nation.
"Switzerland reclaimed a bit of self-confidence," the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper noted.
Others justice experts were not impressed with the decision on Polanski.
"You could easily have ruled the opposite, and that would have withstood any challenge at the Supreme Court," said Dieter Jann, a former Zurich prosecutor.