Latin America & Caribbean

Florence Cassez's release sparks anger in Mexico

Florence Cassez leaves after a lunch with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy
Image caption Florence Cassez maintains she knew nothing about the three hostages found at a ranch where she was staying with her then-boyfriend in December 2005

A Frenchwoman jailed in Mexico in 2007 for 60 years for kidnapping has been freed, after the Supreme Court ruled her rights had been violated. But not everyone is celebrating the release of Florence Cassez, as the BBC's Will Grant reports from Mexico.

On learning of the Supreme Court's decision to release her immediately, all that Florence Cassez took with her from her cell was a handful of possessions including a few stuffed toys.

So desperate was she to leave the women's prison at Tepepan - where she had been kept for the past seven years - that she gave everything else away to fellow inmates and left for the airport in a police convoy.

Outside the jail, protesters from kidnap victims' groups shouted insults at her car as it swept past. For them, her release made a mockery of their plight as victims.

Ezequiel Elizalde, who was previously held by "The Zodiacs" gang, of which Ms Cassez was alleged to have been a member, denounced the justice system as "filth".

"We are a disgusting country," he said outside the court.

"Must we now walk around carrying arms like vigilantes?" he asked rhetorically.

But by Friday, Florence Cassez was all smiles.

'Special treatment for foreigner'

Back in Paris, she was received in the Elysee Palace by the President Francois Hollande, who had - as she put it - "taken up the baton" of her case following earlier high-profile lobbying by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"[My release] is a great victory for Mexicans," she told reporters.

In a prime-time interview on French television she repeated her claims that she knew nothing about the three hostages found at a ranch where she was staying with her then-boyfriend in December 2005.

She understood the anger against her in Mexico, she said, but referred to herself as just another "victim".

However many ordinary Mexicans do not see her as such.

Image caption Ms Cassez had some high profile supporters in France, like President Hollande (centre)

Rather they believe she received special treatment as a foreigner and that a Mexican national in a similar situation would be facing the rest of their life behind bars without recourse to a hearing in the Supreme Court.

Crucially, the Supreme Court judges made no decision over the original kidnapping charges against her.

Her current legal status in that regard is as though no case had ever been brought against her: she is considered neither guilty nor innocent.

Rather, the case was thrown out because of a series of breaches of her legal and human rights.

'Abuses of procedure'

First and foremost, she was denied consular assistance for more than a day after being arrested, in breach of the Vienna Convention.

That key procedural failing alone might have been enough to dismiss the case against her in many other judicial systems.

Then, in an extraordinary twist, her arrest was recreated on live television almost 24 hours after she had first been detained.

It was ruled that the television montage, in which she was forced to participate, had influenced the presumption of innocence of Ms Cassez, not only for the witnesses who later testified against her but also in the eyes of the wider Mexican public.

In Mexico, the man being blamed for the abuses of legal procedure is the former-Public Security Secretary in the Felipe Calderon administration, Genaro Garcia Luna.

Currently believed to be living in Miami, the calls for an investigation into his role in the television montage are growing, particularly from left-wing senators.

Members of the then-ruling party, the PAN, are also seeking to distance themselves from the former-police chief:

"We are not going to justify, and much less defend anyone who has committed irregularities in the exercise of their responsibilities," said PAN Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth when asked about Garcia Luna's influence over the Cassez case.

Certainly supporters of Florence Cassez believe that her case became a personal issue for Mr Garcia Luna after she once phoned a television programme from prison to criticise him live on air.

'Dysfunctional system'

Either way, some Mexican commentators fear that Ms Cassez is just the tip of the iceberg.

"For me it is clear that the Cassez case is only a symptom of a police and judicial system which is showing major cracks and in is in profound need of repair," wrote legal expert Miguel Carbonell of the Autonomous University in Mexico City after the ruling.

"Florence Cassez may now be safe from this dysfunctional system, but more than 110 million Mexicans continue to be exposed to all manner of mistreatment at the hands of the police, the public prosecutors and the judges, either as victims of crime or as the accused."

President Enrique Pena Nieto has promised that the Cassez case will not be repeated and urged the interior ministry and the attorney general's office to ensure that all police action takes place within the rule of law and respect for human rights.

But that will not be easy. The problem of impunity is deeply ingrained in the police and the judiciary.

And for those wrongfully incarcerated in Mexico, the outlook remains bleak. Very few can count on supporters like Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande.

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