Published January 24, 2013
Many in France are celebrating while anti-crime advocates in Mexico are protesting a French woman's release from prison.
Florence Cassez, who spent seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges, returned to a hero's welcome in Paris on Thursday, declaring she had been cleared by the Mexican court that ordered her freed.
Cassez was greeted by France's foreign minister as she left the plane, with the promise of a meeting Friday with the president. Her arrest, trial and 60-year prison sentence made her a celebrity in France, where television networks carried her return live, hours after relatives of kidnap victims angrily shouted "Killer!" as a police convoy whisked her away from the Mexico City prison.
Two consecutive French presidents had called for the release of Cassez, who was ordered freed Wednesday because of flaws in her trial, bringing to a close a case that had strained relations between the countries.
"I was cleared," she said Thursday. "I suffered as a victim for more than seven years."
Anti-crime activists in Mexico vigorously opposed the ruling to free her.
The wife of one kidnap victim showed up on Wednesday as reporters gathered outside the Mexico City prison where Cassez had been held. Michelle Valadez said her husband, Ignacio, was kidnapped and held for three months by Cassez's boyfriend's gang in 2005.
"We paid the ransom, but they killed him anyway," she sobbed. "It's not fair what they've done to us, it's not fair they're freeing her."
The Mexican Supreme Court panel voted 3-2 to release Cassez because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest, including police staging a recreation of her capture for the media. The justices pointedly did not rule on her guilt or innocence, but said the violations of due process, the right to consular assistance and evidentiary rules were so grievous that they invalidated the original guilty verdict against her.
Cassez, 38, was arrested in 2005 and convicted of helping her Mexican then-boyfriend run a kidnapping gang.
"If she had been turned over to court custody promptly, if she had been allowed prompt consular assistance, this (raid) staging couldn't have taken place, and the whole affair would have been totally different," Justice Arturo Zaldivar said during discussion of the ruling.
Because the case was mishandled, the truth remains unknown, said the president of Mexico City's Human Rights Commission, Luis Gonzalez Placencia.
"In this country we can no longer ignore police obtaining evidence by tampering with it, by using torture, by staging raids," Gonzalez said. "We will never know whether Florence is guilty or innocent, but we know for certain there are specific people who violated due process."
Wednesday's ruling put another spotlight on Mexico's historically corrupt justice system and drew reactions from both countries' presidents.
"I want to recognize the Mexican justice system because it put the law first," French President Francois Hollande said on television on Wednesday. "That was the trust we put in it. And today we can say that between France and Mexico, we have the best relations that it is possible to have."
Cassez, in a news conference at the airport in Paris, said the decision showed the Mexico is transforming its approach to human rights.
"It's not just good for Florence Cassez. It's good for all of Mexico," she said. "I hope it will be a precendent."
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said in a statement that he will "absolutely" respect the court's decision.
Agustin Acosta, an attorney for Cassez, called the ruling "a resounding message in favor of justice and respect for human rights." Police torture and fabrication of evidence have long been tolerated in Mexico.
Mexican police acknowledged they staged a raid on a ranch outside Mexico City to depict the hostages' rescue and Cassez's detention. After Cassez was detained and held incognito for a day, Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in the raid staged for television cameras, a type of display for the news media not unusual in Mexico.
The Frenchwoman said she had lived at the ranch, but did not know kidnapping victims were held there.
Cassez ultimately spent seven years in prison and became the center of a vigorous debate between Mexicans who say she was abused by the criminal justice system and those who say setting her free would only reinforce a sense that crimes such as kidnapping go unpunished.
Mexico has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates, and there has been increasing public pressure to halt what is seen as widespread impunity for criminals.
At least one victim identified Cassez as one of the kidnappers, though only by hearing her voice, not by seeing her.
It was not immediately clear how the ruling might affect the case against Cassez's ex-boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, who is charged with allegedly leading the gang and is being tried separately.
But the ruling provoked a backlash from Mexican anti-crime activists, including Isabel Miranda de Wallace, who led a successful decade-long fight to bring her son's kidnappers to justice even though his body was never found.
"Today, they opened the door to impunity, today a lot of people are going to go free," Miranda de Wallace told news media. "We already live without public safety, now it's going to be worse."
Ezequiel Elizalde, a kidnap victim who testified against Cassez, told local media that the ruling discredited the Mexican justice system. "Get a weapon, arm yourself, and don't pay any attention to the government," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.