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.”

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