Frenchwoman freed from Mexico jail hails Sarkozy as savior

PARIS Thu Jan 24, 2013 12:18pm EST

1 of 2. Florence Cassez reacts next to her lawyer Frank Berton (L) and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) during a news conference after her arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, near Paris January 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

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PARIS (Reuters) - A Frenchwoman released early from a 60-year Mexican jail term for kidnapping said former President Nicolas Sarkozy had saved her life by backing her case, as she arrived back in France on Thursday.

Teary-eyed but beaming, Cassez was careful to thank the current president, Francois Hollande, but made clear she considered Sarkozy's help had been crucial.

"I remember when Sarkozy took a stand in my case. It was a crucial moment. He saved my life because I went through very difficult times where sometimes I would get up in the morning and tell myself I was too tired to keep fighting," Cassez told a sea of TV cameras at Paris' Roissy airport.

"At that moment Nicolas Sarkozy arrived - and then later on, Francois Hollande. I owe him a lot," said Cassez.

Cassez spoke to Sarkozy by phone ahead of the court ruling and again before boarding her flight home, but aides said he was unable to meet her at the airport as he was out of the country.

The 38-year-old was arrested in 2005 at a ranch near Mexico City with her former boyfriend, who led a kidnapping gang. Cassez jailed in 2008 after a trial without jury that was held behind closed doors.

Mexico's top court ruled the case against Cassez was tainted because police had forced her to take part in a re-enactment of them freeing kidnap victims, which was aired on national television. Police subsequently admitted wrongdoing.

Sarkozy, who lost power to Hollande in May, had long fought to secure her release, pleading in person with then Mexican President Felipe Calderon to free Cassez.

Her surprise release eight months into Hollande's presidency could instead give a fillip to the incumbent's approval ratings, currently mired at around 37 percent.

Hollande hailed the ruling, invited the Cassez family to the presidential palace and dispatched his foreign minister to greet her on the airport tarmac. But some conservatives suggested he was trying to cash in on her release.

"It's a pity Francois Hollande didn't mention Nicolas Sarkozy, who at the end of the day was the one behind this," Rachida Dati, a prominent member of Sarkozy's UMP party, told BFM TV.

Cassez was released late on Tuesday and rushed straight from her jail cell onto a flight home after Mexico's Supreme Court overturned the original verdict.

Some Mexicans are bitter at her early release and heckled her as she was driven out of prison late on Tuesday.

Cassez said she had not believed that she was going home until the last minute.

"I have dreamt 10,000 times of this moment," she said at the airport after hugging her mother and brother.

"Right up until I boarded the plane, I didn't quite believe it. Even now I'm not sure I believe it."

(Reporting by Catherine Bremer)

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