Victim Of A Dysfunctional System’: French Citizen Florence Cassez Released From Mexican Prison After Legal Missteps

Source: International Business Times


January 29 2013

The release of a French woman accused of being involved in a criminal organization and a kidnapping in Mexico has set off a wave of criticism against the Mexican justice system.

(Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)
Florence Cassez spent 7 years in a Mexican prison without ever being pronounced guilty.

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Florence Cassez, who was sentenced in 2007 to 60 years in prison on kidnapping charges, was released last Wednesday after the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that her rights had been violated.

Cassez was denied consular assistance for more than 24 hours after being arrested, in violation of the Vienna Convention, and was forced by Mexican authorities to re-enact her arrest on live television during that period.

The first violation was grounds enough to throw out Cassez’s case, with the second instance casting further doubt on the fairness of her trial due to its disregard for her presumption of innocence.

“[My release] is a great victory for Mexicans,” Cassez told reporters after her release, according to the BBC.

Cassez has maintained her innocence over the past seven years, saying she was unaware of the three hostages being held at a ranch where she was staying with her then-boyfriend in 2005.

Despite the legal missteps in her case and Cassez’s repeated claims of innocence, many in Mexico have protested her release, viewing it as a miscarriage of justice and an instance of preferential treatment for a foreigner.

“We are a disgusting country,” said Ezequiel Elizalde, who was previously kidnapped by “The Zodiacs” gang, of which Cassez was accused of links, the BBC reported. “”Must we now walk around carrying arms like vigilantes?”

Cassez was welcomed back in France, where she met with President Francois Hollande, whose government had lobbied for her release, carrying on efforts taken up by the previous administration of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Cassez said she understood some people’s frustration with her release, but maintains that she was a “victim” of a dysfunctional justice system.

“It is clear that the Cassez case is only a symptom of a police and judicial system which is showing major cracks and is in profound need of repair,” wrote legal expert Miguel Carbonell of the Autonomous University in Mexico City, the BBC reported.

“Florence Cassez may now be safe from this dysfunctional system, but more than 110 million Mexicans continue to be exposed to all manner of mistreatment at the hands of the police, the public prosecutors and the judges, either as victims of crime or as the accused,” he added.

Mexican Court Frees Woman Imprisoned in (alleged) Kidnapping

From : New York Times
Published: January 23, 2013

MEXICO CITY — A Supreme Court panel in Mexico voted Wednesday to free a French woman serving a 60-year sentence for kidnapping, ending a case that has become emblematic of problems in the country’s opaque justice system and that has strained relations with France.

In voting 3-2 to free the woman, Florence Cassez, 38, the magistrates did not address whether she was guilty or innocent. What was clear, they said, was that her rights had been violated by a televised broadcast of what appeared to be her arrest and the liberation of three kidnapping victims at a ranch outside Mexico City in December 2005.

Authorities later acknowledged that the raid was staged, and that Ms. Cassez and her boyfriend at the time, Israel Vallarta, had been arrested the day before on a highway. They were held while the police set up the supposed raid, which was broadcast on national television.

Three kidnapping victims testified against her. But their testimony was inconsistent and two of them did not identify her at first.

She was released Wednesday night and left the country on a late-night flight for Paris, according to The Associated Press. Ms. Cassez’s plight had been portrayed by the French news media as the tale of an innocent woman imprisoned in a corrupt legal system.

Visiting French cabinet ministers came to see her in her cell. Carla Bruni, the former first lady of France, and Valérie Trierweiler, the partner of President François Hollande, sent gifts.

After the ruling, Mr. Hollande, in a televised statement, said, “Today we can say that between France and Mexico we have the best relations that can be established,” Reuters reported.

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico said he would respect the Supreme Court’s decision. Mr. Vallarta’s case is still being decided in the courts, according to local news media reports. The episode set off an impassioned debate in Mexico. Reflecting widespread desperation over the authorities’ frequent failure to investigate crimes fully, victims’ rights groups argued that the testimony that convicted Ms. Cassez could not just be thrown out.

“Should a failure in the form leave aside the substance: if a person is guilty or not?” Maria Elena Morera, a respected anticrime activist, wrote in the site Animal Politico this week.

But scholars and civil rights groups said that the case represented the problems with a judicial system where witness testimony, often coerced, frequently substitutes for physical evidence and adequate investigation.

“Today anybody can be the victim of a process that is plagued by bad practices from the start,” Federico Reyes Heroles, an author, wrote in the newspaper Reforma.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, Miguel Carbonell, a constitutional lawyer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, wrote on Twitter: “One thing is clear to everybody: the Mexican judicial system urgently needs improvement.”

Other articles : Herald Sun ; The Australian ; Global Post

At Bompard Trophy, Florence Cassez Was on Everybody’s Mind

From the French RTL

November, 17th 2012

Translation : Pierre Lacour

To celebrate Florence Cassez’s 30th birthday, the Bompard Trophy of figure skating, in Paris’ 12th arrondissement, decided to dedicate this year’s edition to Florence. Many celebrities- among them Nelson Montfort, Laura Flessel and the Mayor of Orleans, Serge Grouard, attended to show their support for Florence and her parents.

Sentenced to 60 Years in Jail

“We haven’t noticed any difference between President Sarkozy’s action and that of President Hollande,” said Charlotte Cassez at the Bompard Trophy of figure skating in Paris-Bercy; the Trophy’s organizers had indeed dedicated the 2012 edition to her daughter.

An ultimate appeal is currently under examination by the Mexican Supreme Court, which in March rejected a motion to release Florence, although the majority of the five justices had noted significant violations of defense rights during her trial.


Charlotte Cassez: ”This rally in support of Florence, that’s something!”

Charlotte Cassez said: “We called Florence last night [Friday]… she is not doing too bad. There are many demonstrations to support her now; people are showing up. The ice sports’ association is the first to take action; that’s something. All this is going the right way.”

Along with the President of the French Association of Ice Sport, Didier Gailhaguet, were several politicians, among them Serge Grouard, the mayor (UMP – Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, center right) of Orléans, the city where Florence Cassez’ parents live, and sport personalities, including Laura Flessel, two-time fencing Olympic champion and flag bearer of the French delegation to the last London Olympics.


The Florence Cassez Affair

On April 18 2010, the Mexican justice released a 2007 document proving that Florence Cassez’ public detention was “remade” for TV cameras. As a result, the Mexican Supreme Court accepted to review Cassez trial. On March 21, 2012, the Supreme Court was to decide about setting Florence free.

On June 22 2009, Mexican President Felipe Calderón refused to transfer Florence Cassez to a French prison. Florence was then moved to Santa Marta, a prison known for being tougher.

Incarcerated since 2005, Florence Cassez was sentenced on April 27 2008 to 96 years in jail for kidnapping. Heard on appeal, this sentence was reduced to 60 years on March 3, 2009.

As she went to Mexico to be with her brother who works there, Florence –then 29- met with Israel Vallarta in 2004 and settled down in his ranch. On December 8, 2005, they were detained near Mexico, as Vallarta is suspected to be part of a group of kidnappers. Their detention was re-enacted for Mexican TV.




Parents of Frenchwoman Cassez confident Mexico will free her


By Elinor Comlay


Tue May 22, 2012

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The parents of a Frenchwoman imprisoned in Mexico for kidnapping said on Tuesday they are optimistic the Supreme Court will free her after reviewing the case that has caused a diplomatic rift between France and Mexico.

Florence Cassez, 37, has maintained she is innocent since her arrest in 2005, but the Mexican government has defended the conviction that sentenced her to 60 years in prison.

France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy backed Cassez’s fight to be freed and her parents said the Socialist party of his newly elected successor, Francois Hollande, has assured them he will work for her release.

In March, Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected a bid to release Cassez but opened the door to reviewing the evidence in her trial, which has given hope to her parents.

“We have great confidence in the Supreme Court,” Charlotte Cassez told Reuters in Mexico City, where she and her husband Bernard were visiting Florence and meeting her lawyers.

“The judges said they are in favor of a review of the case because her constitutional rights were violated.”

Florence Cassez was arrested in December 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her ex-boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, who was accused of heading a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.

After the arrest, police, instead of first taking her to a prosecutor or advising the French Consulate, forced Cassez to take part in a staged scene of officers freeing kidnap victims in a different location. The Frenchwoman was portrayed as a kidnapper in the restaged event, which was aired on national television. Police have since admitted their wrongdoing.

A judge convicted Cassez in 2008 after a closed-door trial with no jury, typical of cases in Mexico. Key evidence in her conviction was supplied by three kidnapping victims, one of whom said she had threatened to cut off his finger.

All but one of Mexico’s five Supreme Court judges in March picked holes in the legal process that convicted Cassez, but three of them voted against freeing her.

Nevertheless, Judge Olga Sanchez, who is in charge of reviewing the case, told a newspaper earlier this month she believed the Frenchwoman should be freed.

Florence and Bernard Cassez said they are also hopeful a change in Mexico’s government after presidential elections on July 1 could help bring about their daughter’s release.

Polls show the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is likely to oust President Felipe Calderon’s conservative National Action Party after 12 years in office. Calderon is barred by law from seeking a second term, and PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto is strong favorite to win the election.

“The current government put pressure on the courts … perhaps the next government will not do that,” said Charlotte Cassez.

Anti-crime groups in Mexico have opposed freeing Cassez, saying it would be an insult to the victims of kidnapping in a nation where many of the guilty go unpunished.

Mexico has one of the world’s highest rates of kidnapping.

Cassez is being held at a women’s prison in southern Mexico City where her parents visit daily when they are in Mexico.