The controversial Polish-French director, 76, was arrested as he arrived to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich film festival.
US authorities have been pursuing the director of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist for many years. The Swiss Justice Ministry said it was now waiting for a US extradition request.
Polanski fled the United States in 1978 before sentencing on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl.
He admitted the charge at the time and has never returned, even missing the Oscar award for The Pianist in 2003.
A Swiss justice ministry spokesman said Polanski was being held under a 2005 international alert issued by the US government, related to a 1978 arrest warrant in the underage sex case.
Extradition plans unclear
Polanski is being held at Zurich airport, the Swiss ATS news agency said though no official confirmation could be obtained.
A Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman said a final extradition decision could only be taken after the judicial process has been “finalised” and that appeals were possible against the arrest warrant as well as any extradition decision.
Justice Minister Eveline Wildmer-Schlumpf said her country had to act on the US request and there was no political “pressure” involved. There was “no other solution” but to arrest Polanski, the minister said.
Los Angeles prosecutors instigated the arrest last week after learning that Polanski planned to attend the film festival and an official request was made to Switzerland, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Two previous attempts to detain Polanski in countries which have extradition agreements with the United States failed because “he apparently found out about it and didn’t go,” spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons told the paper.
The Polish and French foreign ministers Radoslaw Sikorski and Bernard Kouchner agreed in telephone talks to make a joint approach to US authorities, Poland’s PAP news agency reported, including for a possible pardon from President Barack Obama.
Petition by filmmakers, stars
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand condemned the arrest of the film-maker, who lives in Paris, and said he had discussed the matter with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mitterrand told a press briefing that the arrest was “absolutely horrifying” and the case was “an old story which doesn’t really make any sense.”
“We know the conditions that this happened in, and while there is a generous America that we like, there is also a side of America which scares and that side has just showed us its face,” he told reporters.
A petition signed by film-makers and actors including Costa Gavras, Wong Kar Wai, Monica Bellucci and Fanny Ardant voiced dismay at Polanski’s detention.
“It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him,” the petition said.
In May, a Los Angeles judge refused Polanski’s bid to dismiss the underage sex case after he failed to appear in court.
Polanski’s legal team argued that the conviction should be annulled because the judge who heard the 1970s case had improperly colluded with prosecutors. The judge has since died.
‘Misconduct’ claims against judge
Judge Peter Espinoza said this year that while he believed there had been “substantial misconduct”, Polanski’s attempts to dismiss charges would not be heard as long as he remained a fugitive.
The woman named as the victim in the 1977 case has joined defence lawyers in urging the dismissal of the case.
Samantha Geimer, now a 45-year-old mother of three, said that Polanski asked her mother if he could photograph her for a fashion magazine at the Hollywood Hills home of Jack Nicholson in March 1977.
She said that after plying the youngster with champagne and drugs and taking nude pictures of her in a hot tub, Polanski had sex with the teen despite her resistance and requests to be taken home.
Born in France of Polish parents, Polanski was raised in Poland and narrowly came through the Holocaust. His mother died in a concentration camp.
He hit the headlines in 1969 when his second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult gang in Los Angeles. Polanski was out of the country at the time.