Mexico’s top court on Wednesday freed a Frenchwoman convicted of kidnapping, ruling that her trial was tainted and ending a seven-year imprisonment that strained ties with France.
Florence Cassez, 38, was sentenced to 60 years in prison after she was arrested in 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her former boyfriend, who led a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.
Mexican Supreme Court Judge Jorge Pardo ordered her release during a televised court session, which at one point looked to be going against Cassez.
Hours later, she was whisked from a Mexico City prison in a vehicle flanked by police trucks to the Mexican capital’s international airport where she was put on an Air France plane back home.
Cassez, who had maintained she was innocent, and her father were both pictured wearing black flak jackets as they left the prison.
“It’s an explosion of joy. It’s wonderful,” Charlotte Cassez, her mother, told French television.
The French government had sharply criticized Mexico for its treatment of Cassez and welcomed her release on Wednesday.
However, outside the Mexican prison relatives of kidnap victims wept as Cassez was freed.
“She’s out, she’s out,” cried Michelle Valadez, who accused Cassez of being involved in her husband’s kidnapping and screamed “murderer” as she lunged at the vehicle.
“What about us?” she asked on local television.
After her arrest, police made Cassez take part in a staged scene of officers freeing kidnap victims.
She was portrayed as a kidnapper in the re-enacted event, which was aired on national television.
Police subsequently admitted wrongdoing.
A judge sentenced her in 2008 following a closed-door trial with no jury, typical of most cases in Mexico.
Her lawyers said Cassez was denied immediate consular assistance when she was arrested and that the evidence of key witnesses should be thrown out. A majority of the Supreme Court judges agreed, without saying she was innocent.
In March last year, the Supreme Court rejected a bid to release Cassez immediately, but opened the door to a review on Wednesday.
Cassez’s fate appeared to be hanging in the balance for much of the hearing, when a majority of the five-judge panel said they would vote against the wording of Mexican Justice Olga Sanchez’s proposal to discard testimony against Cassez.
Two judges dismissed Sanchez’s motion on the grounds it was too lenient on Cassez, while two others rejected because it did not go far enough, instead arguing she should be released.
Then, in a startling turn of events, Sanchez, the last judge to speak, took up the objections and proposed a modified motion to release the Frenchwoman.
Moments later Cassez was declared a free woman after a majority of the panel backed Sanchez’s plan.
Critics of Mexican justice saw the Cassez case as a test of the system’s ability to rectify its faults.
However, her release also stirred resentment among kidnapping victims.
“Today the Supreme Court is freeing the guilty, only respecting their rights, while those of the victims have been thrown under the Arc de Triomphe [in Paris],” said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a respected rights activist.