Court hearing offers lifeline to French woman jailed in Mexico

Wed Jan 23, 2013 2:04am EST
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By Gabriel Stargardter

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's Supreme Court on Wednesday will review the case of a French woman serving a 60-year sentence for kidnapping, a conviction that has caused a long-running diplomatic spat with France.

Florence Cassez, 38, was convicted in 2008 for participating in a kidnapping ring, but the legal process was riddled with irregularities, prompting criticism of Mexico's justice system and protests from France over her treatment.

The hearing before the Supreme Court could set the scene for an early release, if the five-judge panel agrees to discount some of the evidence used to convict her.

Critics of Mexican justice see the Cassez case as a test of the system's ability to rectify its faults.

"It would speak well of the system, because it would correct something that was badly handled from the outset," said Luis Angel Benavides, a law professor at Mexico City's ITAM university.

Cassez, who maintains her innocence, was arrested in December 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her ex-boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, who led a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.

After the arrest, police made Cassez take part in a staged scene of officers freeing kidnap victims. She was portrayed as a kidnapper in the restaged event, which was aired on national television. Police subsequently admitted wrongdoing.

A judge found Cassez guilty in 2008 after a closed-door trial with no jury, typical of cases in Mexico.   Continued...

Florence Cassez of France walks with Mexican boyfriend Israel Vallarta (R) after their arrest by members of Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency's (AFI) on a ranch outskirts of Mexico City in this December 9, 2005 photo. REUTERS/Stringer