French woman freed in Mexico heads to hero welcome in Paris

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 8:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 8:53pm

A Frenchwoman freed from Mexican jail after a court said police violated her rights by staging her arrest for kidnapping on national television was on her way home on Thursday to a hero’s welcome in Paris.

Florence Cassez took a flight from Mexico City with her father Bernard, hours after the Supreme Court voted for her immediate release after seven years in prison in a case that strained Franco-Mexican ties.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French ex-president who battled to have her freed, and France’s current foreign minister were among the many dignitaries joining her mother for her arrival later on Thursday at Charles de Gaulle airport.

Dozens of reporters and camera crews were also in place to record the arrival of the 38-year-old whose release was hailed by President Francois Hollande, who said it marked “the end of a particularly painful period”.

The case of Cassez, who had faced 60 years in jail, has put a spotlight on Mexico’s troubled justice system, where most crimes go unsolved and authorities are often accused of corruption and abuse.

But her release angered crime victim rights activists. As Cassez was driven away from prison, wearing a flak jacket, some people shouted “Kidnapper! Murderer!”

Cassez, who has always proclaimed her innocence, was accused of being involved with a gang of kidnappers known as the Zodiacs, allegedly run by her ex-boyfriend Israel Vallarta.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December, said he would “absolutely respect” the court’s ruling.

The court justices ruled that the police violated her right to presumption of innocence and consular access when it staged her arrest in a live national television broadcast on December 9, 2005.

Mexican television showed police storming her ex-boyfriend’s ranch near Mexico City, where they detained Cassez and freed three hostages as cameras rolled.

Interviewed on the spot by Televisa, the slight, red-haired woman looked stunned as she said: “I have nothing to do with this. I’m not his wife. I didn’t know anything!”

It was later revealed that Cassez had actually been arrested on a road hours before the raid. The federal police said the re-enactment was made at the request of the media.

“It’s a historic day for the Supreme Court because it established that serious human rights violations will no longer be tolerated as a mechanism to find people guilty,” her Mexican attorney Agustin Acosta told reporters.

Though all five Supreme Court justices agreed that Cassez’s constitutional and human rights were violated, two of them said the case should be sent back to lower courts. The court did not rule on whether she was guilty or innocent.

The Supreme Court already examined her case last year, but the panel was split on whether to release her, even though four of the five justices then agreed that there were irregularities in the case.

Her treatment caused a diplomatic spat in February 2011, when Mexican authorities cancelled a “Year of Mexico” cultural event in France after its then president Sarkozy tried to dedicate the festivities to Cassez.

But some Mexican rights groups said the victims were forgotten in the Cassez case.

“Sadly, today showed that the rights of victims don’t count,” said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, leader of the Stop the Kidnapping Association. “What counts is power, money and connections, leaving the victims with empty hands.”