Extradition to America, yet again

Roman Polanski

Another extradition case hits the headlines. Film director Roman Polanski, who is wanted in the United States – he absconded from court before sentencing for a crime to which he had pleaded guilty – has been arrested in Switzerland. The Americans want him returned to California to serve the jail term he has so far avoided.

There are complications. The offence took place 32 years ago, and the victim says that she has now forgiven him. Are these factors that lessen the demand for justice?

Roman Polanski is a French citizen and has lived in France since his escape. French law does not permit the extradition of a French citizen to a foreign jurisdiction, which is why he has lived the last 30 years in safety. (Federalists tend to find uncomfortable such an intervention by national sovereignty into the workings of the criminal law.)

He has been unable to travel to the United States, to collect his Oscar for The Pianist, for example, nor could he go to foreign countries which themselves have extradition treaties with the United States. His film “Tess” had to use northern France to substitute for the characteristic landscapes of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, for example, for fear of arrest and extradition from the UK.

Fans of extraterritoriality followed the libel suit Roman Polanski brought in London against Vanity Fair, a magazine published in New York. (The global reach of English libel laws is something of a sore issue in many countries.) Mr Polanski was permitted to give evidence by video link (the first time this was ever allowed) rather than be required to appear in person in court. He was thus able to claim the protection of English law when it suited him but not when it didn’t.

The foreign ministers of France and Poland are now trying to intervene to save Roman Polanski from being extradited to America. I’m not sure what the conclusion of the case should be, but the distortions caused by national sovereignty are thrown into sharp relief.

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