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Mexican top court frees French woman from prison

Mexico's top court has ordered the release of French national Florence Cassez from prison, overturning her conviction on kidnapping and other charges. The ruling ends a diplomatic row between France and Mexico.

The Mexican Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that police had violated Cassez's constitutional and human rights, when they staged her arrest on national television seven years ago.

"Those responsible for violating Florence Cassez's rights are the authorities," said Justice Arturo Zaldivar Lelo de Larrea, who voted to release her.

In a 3-2 decision, the judges voted to immediately free 38-year-old Cassez from prison and allow her to return to her native France. While the two dissenting judges had agreed that her rights had been violated, they called for her case to be sent back to the lower courts.

"It's a historic day for Mexican justice," said Frank Berton, Cassez's French attorney.

After being released from prison in Mexico City, Cassez went with her father Bernard directly to the airport to return to France.

Arrest staged on live TV

In 2005, Mexican federal police arrested Cassez on a road outside her boyfriend's ranch near Mexico City. Her boyfriend at the time, Israel Vallarta, was allegedly the boss of a kidnapping gang called the Zodiacs.

After the initial roadside arrest, the police officers then staged a raid of Vallarta's ranch, which was broadcast live on national TV. During the operation, they portrayed Cassez as a kidnapper and faked her arrest in front of the cameras.

Police subsequently admitted wrongdoing.

In 2008, a Mexican judge sentenced Cassez to 96 years in prison during a closed-door trial without a jury. The sentence was later commuted to 60 years.

In March of 2012, Mexico's Supreme Court had voted 3-2 against releasing Cassez from prison.

Diplomatic row

The case created a diplomatic rift between France and Mexico, with both former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his successor Francois Hollande lobbying forcefully for Cassez's release.

In 2011, Mexico withdrew from a "Year of Mexico" cultural event in France, after then-president Sarkozy tried to dedicate the festivities to Cassez.

Current President Francois Hollande said Cassez's release 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," Hollande said.

But some victims' rights groups in Mexico say Cassez's release is a miscarriage of justice.

"Regrettably, today showed that the rights of victims don't count in Mexico," said Isabel Miranda de Wallace, leader of the Stop the Kidnapping Association. "What counts is power, money and connections, leaving the victims with empty hands."

slk/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)