Mexico, France divided on release of Frenchwoman

January 24, 2013 - 5:32 PM
APTOPIX France Mexico Kidnapping

Frenchwoman Florence Cassez, left, is kissed by her mother Charlotte after landing at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Thursday, Jan.24, 2013. Cassez, who spent seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges returned to a heroes welcome in Paris on Thursday, declaring she had been cleared by the Mexican court that ordered her freed. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS (AP) — She left Mexico to jeers of "killer!" but touched down Thursday in Paris to the fanfare of a state welcome.

Seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges and a flawed trial made Frenchwoman Florence Cassez a cause celebre in France, where her innocence seemed nearly beyond question upon her return.

Even though the court that ordered her release did not rule on her culpability, she declared to the throngs of journalists waiting to receive her: "I was cleared."

But back in Mexico, relatives of the victims of the kidnap gang she was accused of having ties to see her release as one more injustice perpetrated by an inept judicial system.

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 in her case were so grievous that they invalidated the original guilty verdict against her.

The stark contrast between the reactions in France and Mexico underlined the uncertainty that still surrounds her case.

At home, the 38-year-old Cassez has been hailed as a hero. Two French presidents — Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande — fought for her release, and French media reported that Hollande's partner, Valerie Trierweiler, even sent Cassez a care package with makeup, chocolate and books. Cassez and her family will meet the presidential couple at the Elysee Palace on Friday.

When Cassez's plane landed in Paris, flight attendants asked to take their photo with her before she got off. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius linked arms with her and led her smiling broadly to a throng of journalists. Her father shook his fist in victory.

"The plane touched down, but I haven't landed yet," she told reporters. "I'm still in the sky."

In contrast, as she departed from Mexico, police whisked her to the airport amid shouts of "Killer!" by angry relatives of kidnapping victims.

The wife of one kidnap victim showed up 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. He is being tried separately.

"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."

A survey in Mexico showed that most people think Cassez was guilty and that the justice system doesn't protect victims.

The Frenchwoman said she had lived at the ranch where kidnapping victims were being held, but that she didn't know they were there. At least one victim identified Cassez as one of the kidnappers, though only by hearing her voice, not by seeing her.

The French media widely portrayed Cassez as being unfairly persecuted.

After she was detained and held incognito for a day, Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in a raid staged for the television cameras, a display that is not unusual in Mexico.

While Fabius hailed the Supreme Court's decision to release Cassez as evidence that Mexico is a democratic state of laws, many Mexicans felt exactly the opposite: that it only laid bare how flawed the country's justice system is.

Police torture and the fabrication of evidence have long taken place in Mexico and countless prisoners have been convicted on bad evidence. On the other hand, the criminals behind the country's astronomically high kidnapping rate are seen to enjoy widespread impunity. Even Cassez's long sentence of 60 years — criticized in France as beyond the pale — is one way the country is trying to clamp down on the crime.

"This is certainly a defeat for justice," Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said late Wednesday. "But it's fundamentally a call for us to move forward to investigate and build evidence that can lead to a correct judgment in a process to which we all have the right."

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto vowed that such miscarriages of justice won't happen again.

"I've repeated instructions to the secretary of the interior and the attorney general so that each and every one of the actions by the federal police and prosecutors are done with strict accordance to the law with one fundamental purpose: to guarantee application of the law and prevent cases like this one from happening again," he said.

Cassez also called during her news conference for the guilty — "the real guilty," she called them — to be held to account. But she insisted her own innocence wasn't in doubt. "The court clearly understood that this absolute and immediate release was for innocence," she said.

But Ezequiel Elizalde, a kidnap victim who testified against Cassez, told local media that the ruling was fundamentally unfair. "I suffered for 65 days. Florence Cassez lived like a queen in prison," said Elizalde.

Anti-crime activists in Mexico said that it was simply another blow to victims.

"I can't believe that the highest house of justice in a chaotic country like we're seeing with insecurity would only rule in favor of the human rights of a convicted criminal," Isabel Miranda de Wallace told Mexican media. "Today they gave us the message that victims don't count ... the message today is impunity."

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Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and Katherine Corcoran, Olga R. Rodriguez and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.