Anger over Polanski arrest


France's political elite rallied to the defence of Roman Polanski today, calling on Switzerland to free the 76-year-old film director rather than extradite him to the United States.

Artists and film makers also urged the release of Mr Polanski, who faces charges of having sex with a girl of 13 in 1977, accusing Switzerland of being overzealous in pursuing the case.

Mr Polanski was due to receive a prize for his life's work at the Zurich Film Festival today, but was arrested on a 1978 US arrest warrant after arriving in Switzerland yesterday.

French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand said he was "stunned" by the news, adding that both he and French president Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to see the acclaimed director returned swiftly to his family.

"(Mitterrand) profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life," the culture ministry said in a statement.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner also issued a statement, saying he had spoken to his Swiss counterpart to demand that Mr Polanski's rights were fully respected and that a "favourable" solution be rapidly found.

Mr Polanski holds French citizenship and is married to French singer actress Emmanuelle Seigner. He has spent much of his life here since fleeing the United States in 1978, but regularly visits countries where he does not expect extradition woe.

Robert Harris, a British novelist who said he had been working with Mr Polanski for much of the past three years writing two screenplays, expressed outrage over the arrest.

"I am shocked that any man of 76, whether distinguished or not, should have been treated in such a fashion," he said in a statement, adding that Mr Polanski had often visited Switzerland and even had a house in Gstaad.

"It is hard not to believe that this heavy-handed action must be in some way politically motivated," he said.

Born in Paris, Mr Polanski moved to Poland with his Jewish family when still a toddler shortly before World War Two. His mother died in a Nazi concentration camp, but Mr Polanski avoided capture and spent his youth in Poland before moving to the West.

His ties with Poland are still strong and Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he might appeal directly to the United States over the case.

"I am considering approaching the American authorities over the possibility of the US president proclaiming an act of clemency which would settle the matter once and for all," Sikorski was quoted as saying by the PAP news agency.

Poland's film-makers' association also rose to his defence.

"We do not understand why the Swiss invited Mr Polanski to a film festival, where he was to have received a life's achievement award, and then arrested him," said association president, Jacek Bromski.

"We regard that as a scandalous situation and an example of incomprehensible overzealousness."