MEXICO CITY (AP) — A Mexican Supreme Court panel voted Wednesday to release Florence Cassez, a Frenchwoman who says she was unjustly sentenced to 60 years in prison for kidnapping.
Cassez has become a cause celebre in France, and irregularities in her case strained relations between the countries.
President Francois Hollande went on French television to speak about the Cassez case, saying "I want to tell her that she will be welcomed with all the support necessary ... Florence, you are welcome in your own country."
"And also I want to recognize the Mexican justice system because it put the law first," Hollande said. "That was the trust we put in it. And today we can say that between France and Mexico, we have the best relations that it is possible to have."
The five-justice panel voted 3-2 to order Cassez released because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest. 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 were so big as to invalidate the original guilty verdict against her.
Cassez, 38, was arrested in 2005 and convicted of helping her Mexican then-boyfriend run a kidnap gang.
"I'm crazy with happiness, I can't say anything else," her mother, Charlotte Cassez, said in France. "I'm still struggling to believe it."
Mexican police acknowledged they staged a televised raid on a ranch outside Mexico City to depict the rescue of the hostages and detention of Cassez. After Cassez was detained and incognito for a day, Mexican police hauled her back to the ranch and forced her to participate in their staging of the raid for television cameras, a sort of media display that is not unusual in Mexico.
She said she had lived at the ranch, but said she did not know that kidnapping victims were being held there.
Justice Arturo Zaldivar said during discussion of the ruling that "if she had been turned over to court custody promptly, if she had been allowed prompt consular assistance, this (raid) staging couldn't have taken place, and the whole affair would have been totally different."
The doe-eyed Cassez spent seven years in prison and became the center of a vigorous debate between Mexicans who say she was abused by the criminal justice system and those who say setting her free would only reinforce a sense that crimes such as kidnapping go unpunished.
The issue is sensitive in Mexico, which has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world and where there is increasing public pressure to halt what is seen as widespread impunity for criminals.
"This is a resounding message in favor of justice and respect for human rights," said one of Cassez's lawyers, Agustin Acosta, outside the courtroom. Police torture and fabrication of evidence were long tolerated in Mexico.
Another of Cassez's lawyers, Frank Berton, said Cassez "is going to go free, in a few minutes or a few hours," and said she would probably fly back to France as soon as this evening.
But the ruling provoked a backlash from of Mexico's anti-crime activists, like Isabel Miranda de Wallace, who led a successful decade-long fight to bring her son's kidnappers to justice, though his body still has not been found.
"Today, they opened the door to impunity, today a lot of people are going to go free," Miranda de Wallace told local media. "We already live without public safety, now it's going to be worse."
At least one victim identified her as one of the kidnappers, though only by her voice, not by sight.
Ezequiel Elizalde, a kidnap victim who testified against Cassez, reacted angrily to the court decision. Elizalde told local media the Mexican justice system had been discredited by the ruling, and that citizens should no longer depend on it. "Get a weapon, arm yourself, and don't pay any attention to the government."
Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of Mexico City's Human Rights Commission, said that "in this country we can no longer ignore police obtaining evidence by tampering with it, by using torture, by staging raids."
"We will never know whether Florence is guilty or innocent, but we know for certain there are specific people who violated due process."
Cassez was originally sentenced in 2008 to 96 years in prison for four kidnappings. The sentence was reduced to 70 years a year later when she was acquitted of one of the charges.
The case caused diplomatic tensions between France and Mexico. In 2011, the Mexican government said it would not participate in France's yearlong festival celebrating Mexican culture, after then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the festival should be used to draw attention to the Cassez case.
The case showed Mexico's legal system to be plagued by irregularities and in some cases, extremely slow. The case of Israel Vallarta, Cassez's ex-boyfriend who was also arrested for allegedly leading the gang, is still being decided in the courts.
Mexico in 2008 implemented a judicial reform that called for open trials and reinforced the principle of innocence until proven guilty. The old system, still in place in most of the country, was blamed for fostering corruption and confessions extracted by torture.
Mexico's Supreme Court has become more independent in recent years, and the public has become more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of the justice system. A widely viewed documentary film, "Presumed Guilty," detailed the story of a man arrested off the street and held for several years for a murder he didn't commit.