Mexico’s top court has freed a French woman convicted of kidnapping, ruling that her trial was tainted and ending a seven-year prison ordeal that strained diplomatic ties.
Florence Cassez, 38, was serving a 60-year sentence that opened up a rift between France and Mexico after she was arrested in 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her former boyfriend, who led a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.
Supreme Court Judge Jorge Pardo ordered her release during a televised court session on Wednesday. Hours later, Cassez was driven from a Mexico City prison in a SUV flanked by police vehicles.
Guards said she left for the airport en route to France.
“It’s an explosion of joy. It’s wonderful,” Charlotte Cassez, her mother, told French television. “It’s not far from being the best day of my life. We’ve been waiting for so long. She deserves it. She is innocent and has fought to prove that. It’s a victory for her.”
Outside the prison, relatives of kidnap victims wept. One person screamed “murderer” as Cassez drove past.
Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney, reporting from outside the court, said the ruling “will not go down so well in Mexico”.
“This case has divided the country, as many believe she is guilty. Many believe she has received special attention only because she is a high-profile foreign prisoner,” he said.
The Supreme Court justices ruled that the police violated her rights by staging her arrest in a live national television broadcast in December, 2005.
It showed police storming Cassez’s former boyfriend’s ranch, where they detained her and freed three hostages as cameras rolled.
It was later revealed that Cassez had actually been arrested on a road hours before the raid. The federal police said the re-enactment was made at the request of the media.
A judge sentenced her in 2008 following a closed-door trial with no jury, typical of most cases in Mexico.
In March, Mexico’s Supreme Court rejected a bid to release Cassez immediately, but opened the door to a review on Wednesday, which had initially been intended to discuss a motion to throw out some of the evidence used to convict her.
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 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 Sanchez, the last judge to speak, took up the objections and proposed a modified motion to liberate Cassez. Moments later she was declared a free woman after a majority of the panel backed Sanchez’s plan.
Critics of Mexican justice saw her release as a test of the system’s ability to rectify its faults.
French President Francois Hollande welcomed the court’s ruling, saying it marked “the end of a particularly painful period”.
“France thanks all those who, in Mexico and elsewhere, were committed to ensure that truth and justice prevail,” he said.
But some Mexican rights groups said the victims were forgotten in the case. Thousands of serious crimes have gone unpunished by Mexico’s justice system.
“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,” said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, a rights activist who helped to convict her son’s kidnappers and killers in the face of police inaction.