Florence Cassez, arrested in 2005 on kidnapping charges with her Mexican boyfriend who ran a kidnapping ring, insists she is innocent. She was convicted in 2008 after a closed-door trial with no jury.
MEXICO CITY — A Frenchwoman who became a cause célèbre in her homeland after she was sentenced to 60 years in a Mexican prison for kidnapping left on a late-night flight for Paris Wednesday following a Supreme Court ruling that her trial was tainted and she must be freed.
Florence Cassez's arrest, trial and seven years of imprisonment in Mexico had strained relations between the countries and led consecutive French presidents to call for her release. Anti-crime activists in Mexico have bitterly objected to efforts to release the 38-year-old.
Cassez's flight left Mexico City's international airport at 9:25 p.m. local time and was expected to arrive in Paris about 10 hours later.
Relatives of kidnap victims angrily shouted "Killer!" as a police convoy with sirens flashing escorted a sports utility vehicle out of the Mexico City prison where Cassez had been held. Social media sites in Mexico boiled with indignation, both at her release and the sad state of Mexico's legal and police systems.
Supporters of Cassez, who was arrested in 2005 and convicted of helping her Mexican then-boyfriend run a kidnap gang, celebrated the decision, saying she was innocent.
"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."
Earlier Wednesday, a Mexican Supreme Court five-justice panel voted 3-2 to order Cassez released because of procedural and rights violations during her arrest.
Cassez was arrested in 2005 and convicted of helping her Mexican then-boyfriend run a kidnap gang.
Mexican police acknowledged they staged a televised raid depicting the rescue of the hostages and detention of Cassez.
She said she had lived at the raided ranch, but said she did not know the victims were being held there.
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. She was serving a 60-year sentence.
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.
Vallarta said Cassez was not part of the gang. The evidence used to convict her came from three kidnapping victims, one of whom said she threatened to cut off his finger.
In March, Mexico's Supreme Court rejected a bid to release Cassez immediately, but opened the door to the review, which experts said might result in a retrial or a lighter sentence.
The judges ruled on a motion by Justice Olga Sanchez, who in May said there were "many reasons" to free Cassez and argued for her release in March.
Cassez's defense argues that evidence against her was tainted by the television report depicting her as a criminal.
"We want one thing, that the appeal is upheld and that somehow a way is found for an innocent woman to recover her freedom," Cassez's lawyer, Agustin Acosta, said in Mexico.
Additional reporting by Pauline Mevel in Paris, writing by Alexandra Alper