A Brief History of Extraditions

  • Share
  • Read Later
Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Roman Polanski at a press conference, 2006.

In 1977, Roman Polanski was arrested in the U.S. on a number of charges related to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski, a citizen of both Poland and France, agreed to a plea deal but fled to Paris before he could be sentenced. France does not extradite its own citizens, so the famous filmmaker remained safe as long as he didn't leave the country. But on Sept. 26, 2009, the 76-year-old traveled to Zurich, where he was intercepted by Swiss authorities. Switzerland, it seems, has no qualms about complying with U.S. extradition requests.

Extradition is the legal process by which one country returns a fugitive to another country where that person has been accused or convicted of a crime. It's often a lengthy and complicated procedure whose specifics are determined through treaties signed by individual governments. Generally, extraditions apply only to activities that are criminal in both countries and to people hiding out in nations other than their own. (Governments almost never surrender their own citizens, hence Polanski's ability to evade arrest for more than 30 years.) Political crimes are rarely extraditable, because countries don't want to be accused of aiding a coup or opposing a foreign regime. In 1934, an Italian court refused to extradite the assassins of Yugoslavia's King Alexander, on the grounds that the crime was political.

The first U.S. extradition agreement appeared as a clause within the 1794 Jay Treaty with Britain and applied only to murder and forgery. Formal extradition didn't become commonplace in Western countries until the mid–19th century, when increased travel options made it easier for criminals to escape. Today, the U.S. has extradition treaties with 108 countries. Colombia extradites an average of four suspects to the U.S. each week — the most of any country — usually on charges related to drug trafficking.

In the absence of a formal agreement, nations are not obligated to turn over fugitives to one another. The U.S. and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, which led many dissidents to defect to America and seek political asylum during the Cold War. Fugitive U.S. financier Bobby Vesco allegedly stole $224 million from a Swiss mutual fund and avoided detection for years by hopping between Caribbean islands that did not have extradition laws (and once even tried to buy his own island). And Lebanon's Mohammed Ali Hammadi, wanted for murdering a passenger who was in the U.S. Navy during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight, fled to his homeland, which has no treaty with the U.S. and refuses to give him up.

Even with a treaty, though, high-profile extraditions can take years to complete. Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan was living in New York City in 1964 when authorities discovered she had actually been a guard at Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp. She was stripped of her U.S. citizenship, but the slow legal process — both Germany and Poland wanted to extradite her — kept her in the the country until 1973, when she was finally sent to West Germany. And even though former Panamanian general Manuel Noriega finished his U.S. prison sentence in 2007, he still remains in jail while the legal system decides whether he should be extradited to France (where he is wanted on money-laundering charges) or repatriated to Panama (where he faces charges of murder and extortion).

Given Polanski's decision to fight his extradition and the fact that three countries are involved in the process, he most likely will not set foot on U.S. soil for some time. Polanski is currently being held by Swiss authorities, although his lawyers filed a motion for his release — the first in what will probably be a long legal battle with a lot of paperwork.