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French woman freed in Mexico kidnapping case

In a case that has inflamed passions on both sides of the Atlantic, the Supreme Court orders the release of Florence Cassez, saying her rights were violated.

January 23, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • Florence Cassez, pictured in prison in Mexico City in 2008, was convicted of involvement with a Mexican kidnapping ring.
Florence Cassez, pictured in prison in Mexico City in 2008, was convicted… (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty…)

MEXICO CITY — In a surprising climax to a case that has strained Franco-Mexican relations for years, Mexico's Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the immediate release of Florence Cassez, a young French woman serving a 60-year sentence for her involvement with a Mexican kidnapping ring.

Cassez, 38, was arrested in 2005 along with her Mexican boyfriend, whom authorities said was the head of a kidnapping group called the Zodiacs. Although Cassez lived in a compound where victims were held, she maintained that she had committed no crimes.

The case was complicated by a number of irregularities committed by the Mexican authorities who handled it, including a staged replay of her arrest in front of television cameras.

From the beginning, the story inflamed passions on both sides of the Atlantic. French officials argued that Cassez was the victim of a Mexican justice system that failed to respect suspects' basic rights. Many Mexicans — fed up with their judicial system's inability to punish many of the criminals who ruined thousands of lives — did not want to see her released.

The high court's 3-2 ruling Wednesday afternoon appeared to do little to mitigate those sentiments. In a statement issued minutes after the ruling, French President Francois Hollande celebrated the ruling, thanking those Mexican and French residents "committed to the triumph of truth and justice."

"I'm crazy with happiness, I can't say anything else," wire services quoted Cassez's mother, Charlotte Cassez, as saying in France. "I'm still struggling to believe it."

On Mexican television, meanwhile, kidnapping victim Ezequiel Elizalde told residents to "arm themselves" as protection against criminals because the courts were not on their side.

Twitter was flooded with similarly angry and frustrated comments. "Incredible, the liberation of the French woman," tweeted Maria Esteva. "The message: Kidnap, torture, kill … it doesn't matter, you'll get off free."

The three judges who ruled in favor of Cassez's release did not deliberate on whether she was innocent or guilty. Rather, they noted that the poor handling of her arrest amounted to a violation of her rights.

Judge Alfredo Gutierrez Ortiz Mena argued that the staged "arrest" of Cassez — which federal police arranged the day after her actual arrest, for the benefit of TV crews — ruined the presumption of innocence for Cassez.

"Respect for human rights is the only way to justify the punitive power of the state," Judge Arturo Zaldivar added. "We cannot argue that the Constitution is an instrument of 'optional compliance,' or that the ends justify the means."

Late Wednesday, a police convoy with sirens flashing escorted a white sport utility vehicle out of the prison where Cassez had been held, presumably carrying her to the Mexico City airport.

Relatives of kidnap victims shouted "Killer!" as the vehicle pulled away, according to the Associated Press.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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