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article imageThe rape case that shadowed Polanski

By Valérie MIELNICKI (AFP)     Jan 24, 2017 in Crime

Four decades on, award-winning film director Roman Polanski is still dogged by the greatest stain on his reputation: the rape of a 13-year-old girl.

Next month the filmmaker was scheduled to play honorary host at France's answer to the Oscars, the Cesar awards, but has now pulled out after pressure from activists.

The case continues to polarise opinion.

In 1977, Polanski and 13-year-old Samantha Gailey were at the Hollywood home of actor Jack Nicholson for what Polanski said was a photo shoot for the Vogue magazine group.

The Franco-Polish filmmaker, then 43, was already a star following the success of his noir thriller "Chinatown" and horror movie "Rosemary's Baby".

Gailey, who later went by her married name Samantha Geimer, said Polanski plied her with champagne and part of a Quaalude, a powerful muscle relaxant that stimulates sexual arousal, and got her to undress for pictures in a hot-tub.

He then had oral and anal sex with the girl before taking her home, where her mother learned what had happened and called the police.

Polanski said the sexual act was consensual, although he afterwards apologised to Geimer.

Polanski was charged with five offences including rape by use of drugs and committing a lewd and lascivious act on a child aged under 14.

He initially pleaded not guilty but to avoid a public trial, he accepted a plea bargain under which he would plead guilty to a single, lesser charge of unlawful sexual intercourse.

He spent 42 days in a Californian prison for psychiatric evaluation, and a report was submitted to the court recommending he be given probation.

- Flight to Europe -

Montage photos du 9 avril 2015 de Samantha Geimer et de Roman Polanski
Montage photos du 9 avril 2015 de Samantha Geimer et de Roman Polanski

But in January 1978, Polanski's lawyers believed the judge was possibly preparing to sentence him to a much longer prison term.

The day before sentencing he fled to Paris, making use of his French citizenship and France's limited extradition with the US.

He has never been back to America, wary even of going to countries where extradition could be easier.

For years, the scandal seemed peripheral to Polanski's reputation. He went on to make more acclaimed films, including the triple Oscar-winning "The Pianist" in 2002.

His supporters saw the Geimer episode as just one dark incident in the extraordinary life of an exceptional artist.

Polanski was born in Paris to Polish parents who later brought the family back to Poland. The parents were sent to concentration camps during World War II; his mother never returned from Auschwitz.

Then, in 1969, the filmmaker's pregnant wife Sharon Tate was slaughtered by Charles Manson's crazed followers in Hollywood.

Polanski hoped to move on from the Geimer case after he paid her $225,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

But in September 2009, the past caught up with him when he was arrested in Zurich on a US-issued international warrant.

He spent two months in a Swiss prison and eight months under house arrest.

- 'Martyr and genius' -

The rape case came at the height of Polanski's career in the 1970s
The rape case came at the height of Polanski's career in the 1970s
, AFP/File

That refuelled debate over whether he was a victim of vindictive US officials or a common criminal who should simply face justice.

A group of European writers and actors weighed in, drafting a petition which called Polanski "a directorial genius" who could end up as "a martyr of an unworthy judicial-political mess" if he were extradited.

The French culture minister at the time, Frederic Mitterrand, said it was "absolutely terrible" to see "a director of international renown... turned into fodder for an old matter which really is pointless".

Geimer published a book in 2013 in which she personally spoke out against the push to prosecute Polanski, saying it effectively made him a co-victim in the affair and made it more difficult for her to move on.

Switzerland eventually decided not to extradite Polanski, citing a "fault" in the US request.

In October 2014, Polanski was detained again -- this time in Warsaw -- but was later released.

Poland also refused to extradite him. A new government appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, but in December the court ruled in Polanski's favour.

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