French kidnap convict sparks debate in Mexico

March 8, 2012 - 6:36 PM

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A recommendation that Mexico release a French woman serving a 60-year kidnapping sentence sparked a heated debate Thursday about whether the Frenchwoman should be retried or released, and whether that would be fair to the victims in the case.

The fate of Florence Cassez has become a hot-button issue because the defense has pointed out flaws in the case against her, while others point out that she was identified by the victims.

An opinion written by a Supreme Court justice and published Wednesday recommended that Cassez be freed because authorities violated her rights to a fair trial and consular assistance. That opinion must still be debated and voted on by a five-justice panel of the court, and no date has been set for that discussion.

Police have said they held Cassez for a day after her 2005 arrest and re-enacted the detention to allow news media to tape it.

While the failings of the Mexican justice system have been frequently criticized, many of those same critics also strongly support the rights of crime victims. The quandary was evident in comments made by the head of the government Human Rights Commission, Raul Plascencia, to a local radio station.

"It is fundamental that justice be considered with all precision for the rights of the accused, yes, but also with the aim of achieving justice for society and crime victims," Plascencia said. "There were some flaws in the detention and the improper exhibition of Ms. Cassez to the media, but there are also statements by the victims that say she was responsible for committing a crime."

Some Mexican legislators suggested the Supreme Court, if it does rule there were irregularities in Cassez's original trial, should order her retried, instead of releasing her. The Attorney General's Office issued a press statement Wednesday saying a retrial was all the court could reasonably order.

The prosecutors' statement also noted the opinion written by Justice Arturo Zaldivar "does not address the rights of victims."

The opinion "raises a logical concern ... about disqualifying the value of testimony from kidnap victims," according to the statement.

Cassez has denied any involvement in the abductions, though she lived at the compound on the outskirts of Mexico City where victims were held in outbuildings. She said she was unaware of their presence.

The Cassez case has caused years of diplomatic dispute between France and Mexico.

On Thursday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called it "the first good news in five years." He said on RMC-Info radio that he spoke by phone to Cassez a week ago, and urged her to "hang on."

Cassez's attorney, Agustin Acosta, said it's very likely the Supreme Court will rule her way on March 21, the scheduled date for the justices to meet.