Roman Polanski and the UBS link

Sep 29, 2009
Edward Helmore

Theory gains ground that pressure from UBS AG helped get the film director arrested

So much for Swiss neutrality. Roman Polanksi sits in a Zurich jail awaiting a formal extradition request from prosecutors in Los Angeles for the drugging and statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl three decades ago. 

Almost everyone agrees that the 76-year-old director's arrest on arrival at Zurich airport smacks of back-channel deal-making. But who's been making the deals and with whom? Was the decision to help the Americans an attempt to ease tensions between the two countries in the wake of an offshore banking scandal?

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley claims his office has made contact with several countries on multiple occasions when they've caught wind of Polanski's plans to travel to countries with US extradition treaties. Mostly they've been incompetent or late with the paperwork but this time, thanks to the Zurich Film Festival's website boasting in advance of Polanski's attendance to pick up an award, they got their request in on time.

But it turns out Cooley may not be the methodical, by-the-book officer of the law he likes to portray. The hot theory is that Polanski's arrest involves the Zurich-based banking giant, UBS AG.

The Swiss authorities are terrified that federal prosecutors in Miami are going to widen their probe into how the bank assisted US citizens avoid taxation using offshore accounts set up by UBS bankers.

A partial settlement reached over the summer involved UBS handing over to US tax authorities more than 4,400 names tied to secret Swiss accounts. This could open the way for revelations of tax evasion at other banks - an outcome the Swiss would dearly like to avoid.

They already got off lightly: US authorities had earlier estimated UBS was hiding the identities of some 13,000 additional US clients and some $20bn in assets from the IRS. If any Swiss institution needs to get back into America's good graces it is UBS. "We accept full responsibility for these improper activities," commented UBS chairman Peter Kurer in a statement after agreeing to a $780m Justice Department fine.

So, did the Swiss police agree to apprehend Polanski under pressure or information from the banking giant? After all, Polanski has traveled to Switzerland numerous times in recent years without trouble. He even has a house there.

Swiss Ministry of Justice spokesman Guido Balmer says the difference this time was that authorities knew when and where Polanski would arrive - and had nothing to do with UBS or tax evasion. "There is no link with any other issues," Balmer told AP. "This is a legal story. There is no room for political pressure."

But moral pressure, perhaps. American commentators remain distinctly uncomfortable with Polanski's crime. Though he ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of "unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor," he had allegedly plied her with champagne and given her a quarter of a Quaalude before performing oral, then anal, sex on the woozy girl.

Such details may not stop the French arts establishment being outraged at Polanski's treatment, but his sins are still shocking to American moral codes and standards of conduct.

Robert Harris, the British novelist whose political thriller The Ghost is the subject of Polanski's current film project, said he was in no doubt the director's arrest was "politically motivated".

Sign up for our daily newsletter