MEXICO CITY — The fate of a Frenchwoman accused of being a “Zodiac” kidnapper is pitting France against Mexico.
Florence Cassez’s hyper-publicized, alleged role in kidnapping gang “Los Zodiaco” is one of the best-known cases in this country rife with kidnappings.
But a list of judicial oddities leading up to her 2008 conviction in Mexico angered France, which has pushed for the courts to overturn her 60-year jail sentence.
This week, Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down a bid for an immediate release of 37-year-old Cassez, in a fresh thorn in Franco-Mexican relations. However, judges also said violations in the case occurred, which fanned hopes for a possible retrial.
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The case is riddled with contradictory testimony, changing stories and violations of due process, legal experts say.
In 2005, police arrested Cassez at a compound near Mexico City where kidnapping victims were held. Cassez has vehemently defended her innocence, saying her only connection to the kidnapping gang — whose members used zodiac signs as codenames — was her Mexican boyfriend at the time.
When police arrested her, they did not take her to a prosecutor or notify the French Consulate. Instead the federal police staged a re-enacted arrest for the public eye. With media crews from Mexico’s two largest networks in tow, the young Frenchwoman’s face appeared on TV sets across the nation, along with her then-boyfriend and other alleged members of the kidnapping crew — most of whom have since disappeared.
Denying her the right to be presumed innocent, and the right to a consular visit, irked France and legal experts from the beginning.
Earlier this month, images of the Frenchwoman’s face splashed back in the news when a Supreme Court judge proposed she be set free.
On Wednesday, a majority of the five-judge panel ruled that out, but four judges also said that Cassez’s legal rights had been violated and the case needs to be reviewed.
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“The majority are in agreement … that there have been serious violations of the human rights of the complainant,” said Judge Arturo Zaldivar after hearing the opinions of the four other judges ruling on the case. “Where it appears there is a division is in what should be the consequence of these violations.”
It remains unclear how, or when, a new bid review would proceed.
The French “deeply regret” this outcome, France’s government said in a communique.
President Nicolas Sarkozy had repeatedly demanded that Cassez be given a fair trial in France, but Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, said the original verdict should stand.
“This decision will weigh on our bilateral relations,” France’s former Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said last year after a lower court rejected an appeal to free Cassez, according to Reuters.
Last year, France was celebrating a festival in honor of Mexican culture. Sarkozy said that all events would be dedicated to Cassez. Mexico withdrew its participation. The two leaders are said not to be speaking.
Polls show many Mexicans believe Cassez should stay behind bars in Mexico. National newspapers Milenio and Excelsior recently found that 65 percent and 84 percent of readers, respectively, favor the jail sentence.
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This might reflect in part a deep fear of kidnapping that’s felt across Mexico. Six to seven kidnappings happened per day in the second half of 2011, according to government statistics. The number was likely even higher, as few report kidnappings to authorities.
Tough kidnapping laws require lengthy sentences for those convicted — often longer than murder or rape charges.
Yet for legal and rights experts, the Cassez case has become a trial of the Mexican justice system itself, which has been heavily criticized for its impunity.
“This case is emblematic for Mexico,” said Elena Morera, president of the nongovernmental organization Causa Comun (Common Cause).
She underlined points in the Cassez case that she said apply to justice in Mexico overall: how to ensure the courts can decide independently on the verdicts; whether meddling by the police influences evidence used in the case; and if presenting suspects in the media as guilty prior to their trial influences the verdict.
John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research in the National Autonomous University of Mexico, sees Wednesday’s ruling as a missed opportunity to set a precedent.
“Zaldivar’s proposal got down to some of the core problems in Mexico,” Ackerman said. “It really could have led to an enormous shake up of the judicial system, which is exactly what we need in Mexico … to force the police and public ministry to actually investigate crimes.”