The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Mexico engages in legal soul searching after Frenchwoman convicted of kidnapping is freed

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MEXICO CITY - Mexicans are engaged in national soul searching over their country's flawed justice system as newly freed Florence Cassez, earlier convicted of and sentenced for being part of a kidnapping ring, makes the celebrity circuit in her native France.

While Cassez received a hero's welcome home, meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Friday, many in Mexico used the same word to describe their reaction to her release: "Indignation."

The Frenchwoman served seven of a 60-year sentence as part of a kidnapping ring when Mexico's Supreme Court voted 3-2 on Wednesday to release her because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest, including police staging a recreation of her capture for the media.

President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday ordered the secretary of the interior and attorney general to take all measures necessary to ensure police and judicial procedures are followed in future cases to prevent something similar from happening again. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party explored prosecuting former Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna, who headed the federal police unit that staged Cassez's 2005 arrest.

As one of the first reactions Friday, the interior ministry announced that it is instructing Federal Police to read detainees their rights and reasons for detention, much like Miranda Rights in the United States, as part of new measures to ensure that authorities follow the law.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said he would reopen the case just to study what went wrong. "It's my duty to see if the bad handling is the product of an act that could be a crime," he said.

The case had severely strained relations between the two countries under former President Felipe Calderon. Two French presidents, Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, had fought for the woman's freedom.

Edgar Martinez, 36, of Mexico City, believed her release had nothing to do with legal proceedings.

"Bilateral favours between countries supersede the pain of whatever family," he said Thursday, walking near the iconic Angel of Independence monument.

Headlines and an unscientific newspaper poll reflected Mexicans overwhelmingly opposed the ruling and belief that the court protects criminals, not victims. "The court fails and frees a kidnapper," one headline read. Cassez and her father had to leave the country in bullet-proof vests.

Meanwhile, legal experts called the focus on defendants' rights and due process good for the beleaguered justice system.

"I understand that right now we are in a difficult and confusing moment, but the message has been given: the procurement of justice has to follow due process," said Ricardo Sepulveda, a constitutional and human rights expert who heads the National Citizens Observatory for Security, Justice and Legality. "There is no other path for us to get out of the security crisis that we have in this country."

Few, however, seemed to believe that Cassez's release will lead to any meaningful change in a system where an estimated 98 per cent of crimes go unprosecuted. Innocent people frequently are jailed in Mexico while criminals behind the country's astronomically high kidnapping rate are seen to enjoy widespread impunity.

Isabel Navarrete, a 33-year-old mother feeding frozen yoghurt to her baby on Mexico City's broad Paseo de la Reforma, boulevard blamed the country's institutions.

"There is no credibility in the institutions of justice and lot of pain and indignation among the families who suffered," said Navarrete, calling the national handwringing over the case a "smoke screen."

"If anything, it will get a little worse," she said.

Roberto Hernandez, director of the film "Presumed Guilty," a documentary about a Mexican man falsely imprisoned for murder, said both the experts and the people are right. "The public has every reason to feel betrayed," he said. "The process the Supreme Court followed and the judicial process in general is so poor, it's designed to create mistrust."

In France, Cassez was greeted by a red carpet and television cameras upon her return. The 38-year-old looked rested and buoyant after seven years in a Mexico City prison. "I was cleared," she declared to the throngs of journalists waiting to receive her, though the justices pointedly did not rule whether she was guilty or not.

The Frenchwoman has said she lived with her then-Mexican boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, at the ranch where the kidnapping victims were held, but didn't know they were there. At least one victim identified Cassez as one of the kidnappers, though only by hearing her voice, not by seeing her.

She told BFM television on Friday that she may have been na�ve to get involved with Vallarta, who is still awaiting trial, but added: "Who at 30 hasn't had a relationship like that?"

After Cassez was detained and held incognito for a day, Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in a raid staged for the television cameras, a display that is not unusual in Mexico.

Mexico also has long been plagued by police torture and the fabrication of evidence, and over the years countless prisoners have been convicted on faulty evidence.

Such corruption remains rampant despite a 2008 constitutional amendment to reform the antiquated system from a written, closed trial system to open proceedings with oral arguments. Most of Mexico's 31 states have yet to implement the changes. Even in one that has, Chihuahua, judges were punished for freeing a defendant the public believed to be guilty. They said they were forced to because of improperly gathered evidence.

It's unclear what impact the Cassez ruling will have on defendants' rights and due process in other cases, said John Ackerman of the Institute of Legal Research at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

"The hope is that both the criminal justice reform and this kind of decision would create a demand that crimes be investigated in a more professional manner," Ackerman said. "Just new rules and decisions are not enough. You need institutional transformation and political will and political independence for these investigators, which is something we haven't achieved yet."

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Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant, Sarah DiLorenzo and Elaine Ganley in Paris and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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