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Frenchwoman’s case exposes Mexico media ‘trials’

MEXICO CITY – The fake televised arrest of Frenchwoman Florence Cassez is at the heart of a final bid to overturn her 60-year sentence for kidnapping in Mexico, sparking new debate about media “trials” here.

Mexicans are used to seeing lineups of recently-caught suspects hauled in front of TV cameras almost daily. Some even confess or deny involvement as they stand in front of incriminating evidence such as weapons and live ammunition.

The practice, called a “presentacion,” is a more extreme version of the US-style “perp walk” and has increased amid a violent drug war in which the government of President Felipe Calderon is keen to show evidence of success.

“It’s sort of like a reality show,” said artist Carlos Pez. “When we see them (suspects) on television, they seem guilty to us.”

“If they catch a drug trafficker with weapons then you don’t ask yourself if he’s innocent or not because it’s obvious… he has the weapons,” said office worker Perla Anaya.

In the case of Cassez, who has served more than six years in a Mexican jail, a Supreme Court justice has argued that the trial was tainted after the suspects were presented in a particularly incriminating media spectacle.

Hours after her actual detention, in late 2005, a supposed live TV broadcast showed armed police storming a ranch and freeing kidnapping victims.

Journalists at the scene interrogated the Frenchwoman and her ex-boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, who was accused of leading a kidnapping gang.

A long legal battle has marked the case, straining relations between Mexico and France and dividing opinion in a country where kidnapping is rife.

But the Supreme Court appeal focused on the actions of the police and media shortly after the arrest.

Supreme Court justice Arturo Zaldivar said that police had “consciously deformed reality” with the media setup, affecting witness statements and the presumption of innocence.

He and four other justices are expected to rule on the case on March 21.

Lawyers and rights activists have welcomed the new spotlight on the often abused legal rights of detainees, particularly the practice of presenting them to the cameras before they have been charged.

“The Cassez case gives the Supreme Court an unbeatable opportunity to establish that the mediatized exhibition of detainees has the consequence that they cannot be tried,” according to Ana Laura Magaloni, from the CIDE social science teaching and research center.

“Presenting detainees in the media violates human rights,” Miguel Carbonell, a legal expert from the UNAM university, said at a recent news conference.

In a high profile case, a Mexican beauty queen suffered humiliation and the loss of several beauty crowns after being presented to the media with seven suspected members of a drug gang, including her ex-boyfriend, in 2008.

Laura Zuniga was cleared of all charges after 40 days behind bars, but she said the massive publicity created by the presentation — the case even inspired a movie — made it harder to move on.

“My self-esteem plunged afterwards, and it has been really, really hard to recover from what happened,” Zuniga said in a recent interview with Spanish-language network Univision.

Apart from public opinion, presentations also risk influencing witnesses or even the judge.

“It shouldn’t have any impact on the judges but, strictly speaking, it can translate into a pressure for the judges to decide in a certain way,” said Jose Antonio Caballero, a legal expert from CIDE.

But he added that in a country where police corruption is rife, with suspects sometimes going missing, being tortured or killed, a presentation can also serve a positive purpose as proof that someone has been detained.

“The presentation of suspects implies a safeguard of their rights and physical integrity,” Caballero said.


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© 2010 Sophie Nicholson. All rights reserved.