Mexico quashes Frenchwoman's kidnap charge, ends seven-year ordeal

MEXICO CITY Thu Jan 24, 2013 5:11am IST

The relative of a victim of the Zodiacs kidnapping gang reacts outside a prison where French national Florence Cassez is imprisoned, in Mexico City January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

The relative of a victim of the Zodiacs kidnapping gang reacts outside a prison where French national Florence Cassez is imprisoned, in Mexico City January 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Tomas Bravo

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's top court freed a Frenchwoman convicted of kidnapping on Wednesday, ruling that her trial was tainted and ending a seven-year prison ordeal that strained diplomatic ties.

Florence Cassez, 38, was serving a 60-year sentence that opened up a rift between France and Mexico after she was arrested in 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her former boyfriend, who led a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.

Supreme Court Judge Jorge Pardo ordered her immediate release during a televised court session, which at one point looked to be going against her.

Cassez was still in prison, though her lawyers said they hoped she would be heading home to France on Wednesday evening.

"It's an explosion of joy. It's wonderful," Charlotte Cassez, her mother, told French television.

"It's not far from being the best day of my life. We've been waiting for so long. She deserves it. She is innocent and has fought to prove that. It's a victory for her."

After the arrest, police made Cassez take part in a staged scene of officers freeing kidnap victims. She was portrayed as a kidnapper in the re-enacted event, which was aired on national television. Police subsequently admitted wrongdoing.

A judge sentenced her in 2008 following a closed-door trial with no jury, typical of most cases in Mexico. A majority of the Supreme Court judges agreed.

Her lawyers had said Cassez's rights were violated and that evidence against her should be thrown out.

"It's over. I will go and collect Florence at the prison now. I am collecting a woman that I have been dreaming of collecting from a horrible prison for the last seven years," said Frank Berton, Cassez's lawyer.

In March, Mexico's Supreme Court rejected a bid to release Cassez immediately but opened the door to a review on Wednesday, which had initially been intended to discuss a motion to throw out some of the evidence used to convict her.

DRAMATIC DENOUEMENT

Cassez's fate appeared to be hanging in the balance for much of the hearing, when a majority of the five-judge panel said they would vote against the wording of Justice Olga Sanchez's proposal to discard testimony against Cassez.

Two judges dismissed Sanchez's motion on the grounds it was too lenient on Cassez, while two others rejected because it did not go far enough, instead arguing she should be released.

Then, in a startling turn of events, Sanchez, the last judge to speak, took up the objections and proposed a modified motion to liberate the Frenchwoman. Moments later Cassez was declared a free woman after a majority of the panel backed Sanchez's plan.

"It was an incredible somersault," said Luis Angel Benavides, a penal law professor at Mexico City's ITAM university. "It was a very complicated process and this session was utterly bizarre."

Critics of Mexican justice saw the Cassez case as a test of the system's ability to rectify its faults.

However, the prospect of her release also stirred resentment among kidnapping victims. Thousands of serious crimes have gone unpunished by Mexico's justice system.

"Today the Supreme Court is freeing the guilty, only respecting their rights, while those of the victims have been thrown under the Arc de Triomphe," said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a respected rights activist who helped to convict her son's kidnappers and killers in the face of police inaction. Miranda de Wallace was referring to the famous monument in Paris.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy backed Cassez's fight to be freed and her parents said his successor, Francois Hollande, assured them he would work for her release.

Wednesday's ruling appeared to heal the long-standing rift between the two nations over the case.

"Today we can say that between France and Mexico we have the best relations that can be established," Hollande said in a televised statement following the ruling.

The case hung over former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration, and Cassez's release could potentially pave the way for legal proceedings against some of his top-ranking security aides, legal experts say.

(Additional reporting by Pauline Mevel, Marine Pennetier and John Irish in Paris, and Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham, Simon Gardner and Stacey Joyce)

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