REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Six years after French national Florence Cassez was sent off to serve decades in a Mexican prison for her alleged role in a kidnapping ring, her case is once again stirring heated debate here and abroad.
A member of the Mexican Supreme Court has recommended Cassez be freed because of irregularities in the handling of her prosecution, most notably the fact that federal police staged a replay of her arrest for TV cameras.
The court’s five-member “first chamber” must now debate and vote on the recommendation, a process expected to begin Wednesday.
The case has long strained relations between Mexico, where a kidnapping epidemic has left little room for sympathy for an alleged abductor, and France, where Cassez is seen as someone whose rights were trampled.
It is also airing the dirty side of how justice frequently works in Mexico, where politics sometimes trumps proper procedures and where true guilt or innocence is often beside the point.
“Cassez merely holds up a mirror to our system,” Ana Laura Magaloni, a law expert, said at a forum held to discuss the case.
The government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, along with many families of kidnap victims, reacted angrily to the recommendation of Justice Arturo Zaldivar that Cassez be given “absolute and immediate” freedom. Officials involved in the prosecution said they were confident that testimony from survivors, though at times contradictory, established Cassez’s guilt.
Isabel Miranda de Wallace, an activist whose son was kidnapped and killed, vowed to fight Cassez’s liberty and to lead kidnap victims to the Supreme Court when the debate starts.
In a national telephone survey published Monday by the Excelsior newspaper, 86% of respondents said Cassez should stay in prison (link in Spanish).
But the case has proved divisive. A number of experts said it was bungled and that Cassez was denied due process. Zaldivar also maintained that Cassez was not given proper access to French consulate officials after her arrest -- a delicate point to argue for a country that demands such treatment for its millions of citizens who live abroad.
Mexico City’s human rights commission said it did not share “the vision of those who think ‘due process’ is a list of technicalities and formalities that can be put to one side when someone has been pre-judged as being guilty.
“That is authoritarianism above regard for guarantees.”
In France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as welcoming the news of Cassez’s possible release. He has championed her case and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Mexico to transfer Cassez to a French prison.
Cassez, now 37, was arrested in 2005 with a Mexican boyfriend who authorities said ran the Zodiacs kidnapping ring. She was convicted the following year and sentenced to 96 years in prison, a term later reduced to 60 years.
She has maintained her innocence, although she lived in a compound where victims were held (link in Spanish).
Authorities at the time trumpeted the arrests as an important victory against rampant kidnappings. But Zaldivar, in his motion, singled out Mexico’s top lawman, Genaro Garcia Luna, for tainting the entire case by staging a raid before television cameras in which Cassez and her boyfriend were arrested and victims rescued. Reporters were allowed to interrogate the suspects.
In fact, they had been arrested a day earlier at a different location.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: In a file photo from January 2008, Florence Cassez, a French national convicted of kidnapping, listens to her lawyer from jail in Mexico City. Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images