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Mexican court rejects appeal by French woman jailed for 60 years

Video by Pauline PACCARD , Carla WESTERHEIDE

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-02-12

A Mexican federal court has rejected an appeal by French woman Florence Cassez (pictured), who was sentenced in 2005 to 60 years in jail for aiding the abduction of four people.

AP - An appeals court on Thursday upheld the conviction of a French woman imprisoned in Mexico for kidnapping, a case that has ignited passions in both Mexico and France and caused friction between the two governments.

The court said in a statement that the conviction and 60-year-sentence of Florence Cassez would stand. The court said that prosecutors had proved Cassez’s guilt in three 2005 kidnappings and that irregularities alleged by her defense attorney did not hinder the case.

Cassez has acknowledged she lived at a ranch near Mexico City where the kidnap victims were held, including an 8-year-old girl. But she said she was simply dating a Mexican arrested in the case and did not know the people at the ranch had been kidnapped.

One of the victims identified Cassez as one of her captors, and another suspect in the case said the Frenchwoman not only participated in abductions, but helped lead the gang that carried them out.

The appeals court ruled that while the victims never saw Cassez’s face, they identified her by her voice, foreign accent and hair color.

Serving 60 years in Mexico: the Cassez case

Cassez’s imprisonment became a hotly debated issue in France after Mexican police acknowledged they staged a televised raid of the ranch in which officers appeared to rescue the hostages and detain Cassez and a Mexican man. The Attorney General’s Office acknowledged that, in fact, Cassez had been arrested the day before outside the ranch.

Defense lawyer Agustin Acosta argued that parading Cassez in front of the cameras after her arrest prejudiced the case from the beginning. But the appeals court rejected that argument, saying those videos were not formally considered during the trial.

“She was presented as guilty in front of the television,” Acosta said. “We all know the impact of television and how it can influence judges and everybody.”

Acosta also said the victims changed their testimony several times during the trial. He said that at first, three victims said they could not identify Cassez. But after the staging of the raid was discovered two months after authorities first announced her arrest two of the victims told police they could identify her, Acosta said.

He also said the victims described the events as they unfolded before the cameras during the staged raid - and not how they really happened. He said they described being rescued by uniformed and masked police who had to fire shots, even though police later acknowledged they simply walked in the door of the ranch and were dressed in civilian clothing.

Acosta said Cassez might be able to appeal to Mexico’s Supreme Court if lawyers can find evidence that the Mexican Constitution was violated.

He said her family would definitely take the case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, a branch of the Organization of American States. The commission decides whether to take cases to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a process that typically takes years.

“I continue to be convinced of Florence’s innocence,” Acosta said. “The family is going to continue this battle to the end.”

Cassez was initially convicted of four kidnappings and sentenced to 96 years, but in 2009 a court reduced the charges to three kidnappings and cut the sentence to 60 years.

She is the only person convicted in the case. The case against her former boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, is pending.

Cassez has found little sympathy in Mexico, which has one of the world’s highest kidnapping rates.

Two prominent anti-crime activists, Isabel Wallace and Alejandro Marti, had urged the court to keep her in prison. Their own children were kidnapped and murdered in unrelated cases.

“It’s infuriating that someone who hurt Mexican society, like Florence Cassez Crepin, is trying to make herself a victim,” the activists said in a statement signed Wednesday by the groups they lead and several other anti-crime associations. “The real victims were those who were kidnapped by Cassez’s band.”

The groups exhorted the judicial system and the Mexican government “respectfully but energetically, not to cede before the pressure of the French government.”

The French Embassy complained the groups put inappropriate pressure on the court.

“It’s worrisome to see that these organizations are exerting direct pressure over the judicial system to influence the decisions,” an embassy statement said. “They are practicing what they denounce and what they are accusing without cause the French government of doing.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Mexico in 2009 and asked Mexico to allow Cassez to serve her sentence in France. But President Felipe Calderon eventually rejected the request because France could not guarantee that Cassez would serve her full 60-year sentence.

Calderon has faced huge street protests over Mexico’s rate of kidnappings and other crimes. There were 1,163 reported kidnappings in the country of 112 million people in 2009, the most recent year for which the government released statistics.

That rate 1.1 per 100,000 inhabitants is considered high for a crime that is rare in many other countries. And the government acknowledges that the real number is probably much higher because the vast majority of kidnappings go unreported due to mistrust of police.

Date created : 2011-02-10

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