Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mexican justice

I doubt that anyone is much surprised

The harrowing account of a French woman who has been jailed for life in Mexico despite vigorously protesting her innocence has filled her countrymen with indignation, souring relations between the two countries.

Florence Cassez, who has been in prison since 2005 on seemingly baseless kidnapping charges, writes in a book of her despair at the thought of spending the rest of her life behind bars. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy, who believes she has committed no crime, seems powerless over Mexican authorities and is quoted as saying: “They’re making fun of us.”

Increasingly depressed, Cassez, 34, lives for the calls she is allowed to make from a public telephone on the wall of the fly-infested prison. She has often had the French president on the phone.

“I wonder if the people at the other end understand the gap between us, them in their armchairs, me leaning against the wall, or kneeling on the ground while men stop and stare at me in the corridor, poking each other in the ribs, laughing,” writes Cassez in her memoir, In the Shadow of My Life, which appeared in Paris bookshops last week. “I am so tired of it all,” she says. “The cries of the prisoners all day long, it makes me shiver when I hear them coming from the dreaded hole,” referring to an isolation wing in the basement. “It will mark me for life.”

Cassez believes she may have put her life in danger for criticising Genaro Garcia Luna, the Mexican secretary of public safety and former head of a special police unit that arrested her and Israel Cisneros, her boyfriend, in 2005. “I expect the worst from him,” she said in an interview for French radio last week. “Every time I have tried to defend myself there has been some reaction. When I spoke to the Mexican press they moved me for a time to a much more uncomfortable prison. But now I have nothing to lose.”

Her book maintains that Sarkozy wants to take her case to the International Court of Justice. He is apparently eager to take action against Garcia Luna, who is accused by Cassez of lying in court.

She may have good reason to be afraid of him and his henchmen. “We know what he did to the taxi driver,” was one of Sarkozy’s comments about Garcia Luna’s right-hand man, who is reported to have shot dead a driver in an argument about the fare.

As a policeman, Garcia Luna was tarnished by accusations that he turned a blind eye to extra-judicial killings and was apparently eager to redeem himself with spectacular arrests of kidnappers who, along with drug traffickers, are considered one of Mexico’s greatest scourges.

Cassez was accused of belonging to a kidnap gang called the Zodiacs and supposedly led by the courteous but somewhat possessive Cisneros, with whom she had begun a relationship after arriving from France in 2003. The romance fizzled out after a while but the two remained friends.

She is not certain, but hopes that Cisneros is as innocent as she is: “Otherwise I’d spend my whole life wondering why I never saw anything. I don’t want to be the idiot who didn’t realise her boyfriend was a kidnapper of children.”

After being seized by police, the two were taken to Cisneros’s ranch, where Cassez had often stayed. According to Cassez, they were told to get into a bed and were then subjected to a mock arrest for the benefit of television cameras. Kidnapped victims who had been rescued from a different location — and who at first said they did not recognise Cassez — were “freed” for the cameras.

A bewildered Cassez found herself sliding into a Kafkaesque world in which she became known to Mexicans, after a relentless media campaign against her, as “Florence the monster”. She was thrown into a prison with rapists and murderers.

She describes the trial as a farce in which the judges seemed not to care that witnesses against her kept changing their stories. Witnesses in Mexican court cases are often told what to say by police. Judges come under similar pressures.

The victims had described being held in a house that bore little resemblance to the Cisneros ranch. “It’s a complete scandal,” says Franck Berton, her lawyer. “How could they have put this woman in prison for 60 years? Florence Cassez is innocent. Mexico has no more respect for the law than a totalitarian African state.”

France’s activism and the intervention of Sarkozy, who has written letters to President Felipe Calderon, seem only to have hardened Mexico against her. There has been indignant comment in the Mexican press about the “arrogant” French. Calderon went back on an offer to let Cassez serve the rest of her sentence in France, apparently fearing that “Sarko” would pardon her as soon as she got home. “Things are not going as we had thought,” the French president told her on the telephone. He tried to reassure her: “I tell you, Florence — I, Nicolas Sarkozy, will never abandon you.”

Original report here

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