Frenchwoman's Case Could Change How Mexican Cops Operate

PHOTO: Frenchwoman Florence Cassez smiles after landing at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Thursday, Jan.24, 2013. Cassez, who spent seven years in prison in Mexico on kidnapping charges returned to a heros welcome in Paris on Thursday.

Christophe Ena/AP Photo

A decision by Mexico´s supreme court to overturn a 60 year prison sentence against French citizen, Florence Cassez, has put Mexican law enforcement agencies in an uncomfortable spot. Legal experts who are familiar with this case, also say that it could change how justice is carried out in Mexico.

In December of 2005, Cassez was accused of belonging to Los Zodiacos, a gang that kidnapped people for ransom in Mexico City. Mexico´s Federal Police said that they arrested Cassez in a farmhouse near the city of Cuernavaca, where three kidnapping victims were being held.

Cassez was sentenced to 93 years in jail, which was later reduced to 60. But after serving only seven years, she was released on Wednesday and is already back in France.

The road to her eventual release started with the appeals process, where Cassez's lawyers revealed serious irregularities in the prosecution´s case. Defense lawyers first demonstrated that Cassez had not been allowed to access a defense lawyer until several days after her arrest, a violation of Mexican laws that enable suspects to receive "due process." Then, Cassez´s lawyers showed that witnesses who had identified Cassez as a member of the Zodiacos kidnapping gang in court depositions, had initially told police that they did not recognize Cassez.

The Cassez legal team also pointed out that Mexican police had re-enacted her arrest on Mexican TV, a day after it actually happened. This re-enactment was falsely broadcast by local channels as "live" footage of a sting operation and included scenes of police busting into a room and "arresting" Cassez, with journalists asking her several questions about her alleged crimes on camera, weeks before a trial actually took place.

Mexico´s Supreme Court pointed out on Wednesday that these actions violated Cassez's right to "due process." Three out of five judges overseeing the case also said that by parading Cassez in front of TV cameras, police violated her right to presumed innocence.

The decision to overturn her sentence was good news to Mexican human rights lawyers who argue that this case will make law enforcement officials more cautious about how they gather evidence, and could also discourage them from parading suspects in front of TV.

"When police or prosecutors place a suspect on mass media and present him as a perpetrator of a crime, they are violating that suspect´s human rights," said Netzai Sandoval, an international law professor at Mexico City's Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Sandoval pointed out that in Mexico it is common for police to parade suspects in front of TV cameras shortly after they are captured. But usually, prosecutors are not penalized for this practice, even if it can influence how a judge rules on a case.

"This is not only a PR exercise," said Sandoval. "Once a trial begins, it´s hard for judges to order the liberation of a person that is presumed to be guilty by society."

According to Human Rights Watch, Mexico´s criminal justice system is heavily stacked against suspects, with violations that include extended periods of pre-trial detention, and confessions obtained by security forces through the use of torture, which are then used in court.

The New-York-based NGO found that in 2011, 40 percent of prisoners in Mexico had never been convicted of a crime. It also surveyed five Mexican states and found evidence which suggested that Mexican security forces in those states, had been involved in at least 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings.

Eduardo Gallo, a prominent human rights activist hoped that the Cassez case would shed some light on such violations of suspect´s rights and discourage police from committing further abuses.

"We don´t want people to be accused of a crime with evidence that is not properly gathered," he said after the judges handed out their sentence in Mexico City. "We cannot permit police to act improperly when they conduct an investigation."

Still, kidnapping victims felt betrayed by Mexico´s Supreme Court. They argued that despite the flawed procedures of police and prosecutors, there was enough evidence in this case to demonstrate that Cassez was involved in the kidnappings, including the fact that her boyfriend, Israel Vallarta had confessed that he was part of the Los Zodiacos kidnapper´s gang.

"I am Mexican, but I must say, this country is real garbage," said Ezequiel Elizalde, one of the three kidnapping victims rescued by police at the farmhouse where Florence Cassez's re-enacted arrest took place. "The institutions and the courts in this country are pure filth."

Miranda de Wallace, the head of a kidnapping victims group called Alto al Secuestro, said that the court´s ruling showed that in Mexico, where nine out of 10 crimes go unpunished, the concerns of victims "do not count."

"Today it is clear that what matters here is money, power and relationships," she said on Milenio TV, reminding viewers that the French government had pushed for Cassez's freedom.

Wallace was referring to France's frosty attitude toward Mexico after Mexico's government refused to transfer Cassez to a prison in France to serve out her sentence. There were also threats to bring some of Mexico's top officials before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their role in this case.

However Sandoval said that the evidence against Cassez was always spotty. He pointed out that police even backtracked on the location of her arrest, saying first that they detained her in a farmhouse where three kidnapping victims were held, but then stating in documents sent to the supreme court that they caught Cassez a few kilometers from that site, on the Mexico City to Cuernavaca road. Sandoval said that Mexican citizens should direct their frustration at policemen and prosecutors, who did a lousy job with the case, fabricated evidence, and broke procedures that would have given Cassez a fair trial.

"The problem is that there is no convincing evidence to prove that she is definitely guilty. But what there is, is clear proof that her rights (to a fair trial) were violated," Sandoval said.

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