Mexico frees French woman jailed for 60 years

Mexico's Supreme Court ordered on Wednesday the immediate release of a French woman serving 60 years in prison for kidnapping, ruling that authorities had violated her legal rights.

Mexico frees French woman jailed for 60 years
Charlotte Cassez (right), mother of French national Florence Cassez who was released from prison, flanked by Jean-Luc Romero (left), President of Cassez support committee. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Three of five justices voted for the release of Florence Cassez, 38, who has been in prison for seven years in a case that strained Franco-Mexican

Court president Jorge Mario Pardo Rebolledo instructed authorities to notify the prison to "give total and absolute freedom to Florence Cassez."

Her French attorney, Frank Berton, said he expected Cassez to fly back to France Wednesday night. Her father was at the prison during the court hearing.

"It is a historic day for Mexican justice," Berton told reporters.

Her case has put a spotlight on Mexico's troubled justice system, where most crimes go unsolved and authorities are accused of corruption and abuse.

Cassez has claimed her innocence ever since her arrest. She was accused of being involved with a gang of kidnappers known as the Zodiacs, allegedly run by her ex-boyfriend Israel Vallarta.

Mexican television showed police storming Vallarta's ranch on December 9, 2005, where they staged her arrest and freed three hostages.

Interviewed on the spot by Televisa, the slight, red-haired woman looked stunned as she said: "I have nothing to do with this. I'm not his wife. I didn't know anything!"

It was later revealed that Cassez had actually been arrested on a road hours before the raid. 

Though all five Supreme Court justices agreed that Cassez's constitutional and human rights were violated, two of them said the case should be sent back to lower courts.

Arguing against that view, Justice Arturo Zaldivar Lelo de Larrea said "those responsible for the violation of Florence Cassez's human rights are the authorities."

The Supreme Court already examined her case last year, but the panel was split on whether to release her, even though four of the five justices them agreed that there were irregularities in the case. 

Her treatment caused a diplomatic spat in February 2011, when Mexican authorities canceled a "Year of Mexico" cultural event in France after then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to dedicate the festivities to Cassez.

Earlier Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he hoped that, "while respecting the Supreme Court's independence, the truth be recognized."

After meeting with Mexico's new President Enrique Pena Nieto in October, his French counterpart Francois Hollande said that he was confident the Supreme Court would "put an end to this painful situation."

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Paris Sotheby’s auction draws wrath of Mexico

Mexico has asked France to withdraw 130 Mexican pieces from an auction planned this week in Paris at Sotheby's. Guatemala has also protested that 13 of its archeological treasures will also go under the hammer at the same auction.

Paris Sotheby's auction draws wrath of Mexico
File photo of Mayan artefacts found in Mexico. Photo: Moyses Zuniga/AFP

Auctions like this "strip these unique and priceless goods of their cultural, historic and symbolic essence, turning them into merchandise or mere novelties," the National Institute of Anthropology and History said.

The Mexican government has been opposed to the auction since it saw the catalog for it. The sale is scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

Mexican experts have analyzed the catalogue and concluded that, of the 130 piece billed as being from Mexico, 51 are "archeological pieces that belong to the nation" and the rest are handicraft pieces of recent making.

The anthropology and history institute asked France to intervene and halt the sale.

But the institute did not explain why it also wants 59 pieces it said are of recent manufacture to also be spared from the auctioneer's block.

Mexico's request follows a similar one made by Guatemala earlier this month over 13 archeological treasures that will be sold at the same Sotherby's  auction.

Guatemalan law "prohibits the sale and export of all articles that make up our cultural heritage, such as archaeological pieces," the Guatemalan Culture Ministry said in a statement.

It did not indicate which particular artefacts were in question, among the figurines, jewellery, masks, vessels and furniture being sold for an estimated €1,000 to €3 million ($1,300 to $3.9 million).

 The Culture Ministry insisted that the pieces were "the unique, exclusive and legitimate property of the state of Guatemala."

Authorities in the Central American nation expect their colleagues in France to "intervene and enforce the requests made by the parties involved in Latin American countries," the statement added.

"You cannot allow private collectors to unlawfully enrich themselves at the expense of the Americas' pre-Hispanic cultural heritage."

The catalogue of the collection to be sold at the Sotheby's auction can be viewed here.