Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In Mexico she's a 'killer,' in France she's a hero

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PARIS -- She left Mexico to jeers of "killer!" but touched down Thursday in Paris to the fanfare of a state welcome.

Seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges and a flawed trial made Frenchwoman Florence Cassez a cause célèbre in France, where her innocence seemed nearly beyond question upon her return.

Even though the court that ordered her release did not rule on her culpability, she declared to the throngs of journalists waiting to receive her: "I was cleared."

But back in Mexico, relatives of the victims of the kidnap gang she was accused of having ties to see her release as one more injustice perpetrated by an inept judicial system.

The Mexican Supreme Court panel voted 3-2 to release Cassez because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest, including police staging a recreation of her capture for the media. The justices pointedly did not rule on her guilt or innocence, but said the violations of due process, the right to consular assistance and evidentiary rules in her case were so grievous they invalidated the original guilty verdict.

The stark contrast between the reactions in France and Mexico underlined the uncertainty that still surrounds her case.

At home, the 38-year-old Cassez has been hailed as a hero. Two French presidents -- Nicolas Sarkozy and Franßois Hollande -- fought for her release, and French media reported that Hollande's partner, Valerie Trierweiler, even sent Cassez a care package with makeup, chocolate and books. Cassez and her family will meet the presidential couple at the Elysee Palace today.

When Cassez's plane landed in Paris, flight attendants asked to take their photo with her before she got off. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius linked arms with her and led her smiling broadly to a throng of journalists. Her father shook his fist in victory.

"The plane touched down, but I haven't landed yet," she told reporters. "I'm still in the sky."

In contrast, as she departed from Mexico, police whisked her to the airport amid shouts of "killer!" by angry relatives of kidnapping victims.

The wife of one kidnap victim showed up as reporters gathered outside the Mexico City prison where Cassez had been held. Michelle Valadez said her husband, Ignacio, was kidnapped and held for three months by Cassez's boyfriend's gang in 2005. He is being tried separately.

"We paid the ransom, but they killed him anyway," she sobbed. "It's not fair what they've done to us, it's not fair they're freeing her."

A survey in Mexico showed most people think Cassez was guilty and the justice system doesn't protect victims.

The Frenchwoman said she had lived at the ranch where kidnapping victims were being held, but she 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.

The French media widely portrayed Cassez as being unfairly persecuted.

After she 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.

While Fabius hailed the Supreme Court's decision to release Cassez as evidence that Mexico is a democratic state of laws, many Mexicans felt exactly the opposite: that it only laid bare how flawed the country's justice system is.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2013 A19

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