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Mexico Supreme Court panel votes not to free Frenchwoman Cassez

A Supreme Court panel voted Wednesday not to free a Frenchwoman who says she was unjustly sentenced to 60 years in prison for kidnapping in a case that has put Mexico's troubled justice system on trial and become a cause celebre in France.

The case of Florence Cassez has strained relations between the countries and it is also the center of a vigorous debate between Mexicans who say she was abused by the criminal justice system and those who say setting her free would only reinforce a sense that crimes such as kidnapping go unpunished.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly called for Cassez to be freed, while Mexican President Felipe Calderon has urged the court panel to uphold justice for victims.

Cassez's case "simply holds up a mirror to practices of our justice system," said Ana Laura Magaloni, dean of legal studies and the Center for Economic Research in Mexico City.

Cassez was arrested in 2005 and convicted of helping a kidnapping gang allegedly led by her then boyfriend that kept victims at the compound where she was living on the outskirts of Mexico City. She has denied involvement and said she didn't know victims were being held there.

At least one victim identified her as one of the kidnappers, though only by her voice, not by sight.

Cassez's imprisonment became a hotly debated issue in France after Mexican police acknowledged they staged a televised raid of the ranch in which officers appeared to rescue the hostages and detain Cassez. The Attorney General's Office acknowledged that, in fact, Cassez had been arrested the day before outside the ranch.

Police later acknowledged they were dressed in civilian clothing and were let into the ranch by Israel Vallarta, Cassez's ex-boyfriend who was also arrested.

Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in their staging of the raid for television cameras, a sort of media display that is not unusual in Mexico.

Supreme Court judge Arturo Zaldivar cited that incident and other irregularities when he proposed this month that Cassez should be set free. He said police also were late in allowing her access to the French consul.

A panel voted 3-2 against freeing her but four also said there were violations to her rights and that the case needs to be reviewed. A new judge will now have to present a proposal that considers what effects those violations had on her case. That will be voted on by a panel of five judges.

"It's a great step to have the justice system recognize that the case has not been fair, that there were very grave violations" said Cassez's lawyer, Agustin Acosta.

Zaldivar's proposal divided a country that is struggling to repair a legal system that routinely shrugs at torture or tramples on the rights of defendants but that also is fed up with rampant drug violence and kidnappings.

For Miguel Sarre, a law expert at Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology, the justices missed an opportunity to send a message to police, prosecutors, and judges who botch cases without consequences.

"It was an opportunity to send a message to authorities and say that cases like this one can't be presented to society but instead they came up with lukewarm resolution," Sarre said. "The justices who voted against this proposal didn't dare to judge the judicial bodies they were part of until recently."

Federal figures show kidnappings have at least doubled since 2007, with 1,152 reported between January and November of 2011, though the number is likely much higher. Most kidnappings in Mexico still go unreported.

A widely viewed documentary film, "Presumed Guilty," last year detailed the story of a man arrested off the street and held for several years for a murder he didn't commit.

At the same time, a recent study at the Tec de Monterrey university found that 98 percent of crimes reported never end in verdicts. Most crimes in Mexico still go unreported for lack of confidence in the system.

When a woman in the border state of Chihuahua was gunned down in the street while protesting the release of a man accused of killing her daughter, national outrage was so strong that the judges involved were suspended.

Various public opinion polls say 65 to 74 percent of Mexicans think Cassez is guilty and many express resentment at French pressure to win her freedom.

Still, some defend Zaldivar's push to uphold the letter of the law as a protection for all defendants.

"If this is allowed to stand, we are all at risk," Miguel Carbonell, a legal expert from Mexico's National Autonomous University, said recently of the Cassez conviction.

But many believe any violation of due process was not serious enough to let Cassez go free.

Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas, Mexico's deputy prosecutor for organized crime, said last week Cassez did receive assistance from her consulate and that the reenactment was justified because it was for "the public broadcasting of an issue of national interest."

Mexico in 2008 implemented a judicial reform that called for open trials and reinforced the principle of innocence until proven guilty. The old system, still in place in most of the country, was blamed for fostering corruption and confessions extracted by torture.

Cassez was sentenced in 2008 to 96 years in prison for four kidnappings. The sentence was reduced to 70 years a year later when she was acquitted of one of the charges.

Early last year, a court rejected a plea to dismiss the charges and confirmed the 60-year sentence.

The case of her former boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, is still being decided in the courts.

Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens Institute for Crime Research, said last week the Cassez case presents a fundamental dilemma.

"Not a single kidnapper should be set free," he said, "but neither do I wish that a single innocent person be behind bars, as a scapegoat, as a victim of social vengeance."