Irish woman will spend ‘at least two years’ in Peru prison

Lawyer for McCollum Connolly says alternative to ‘accepting responsibility’ may result in sentence of up to 15 years

Irish woman, Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) (20), and British woman Melissa Reid (19), stand as they are being questioned by police in Lima in this still image taken video provided by the police.

Irish woman, Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) (20), and British woman Melissa Reid (19), stand as they are being questioned by police in Lima in this still image taken video provided by the police.

Wed, Aug 28, 2013, 08:59

The lawyer acting for the Irish woman held in a Peru prison on suspicion of trying to smuggle cocaine worth €1.7 million has said she will spend at least two years in jail if she accepts responsibility for the crime now.

Peter Madden said the alternative for Michaella McCollum Connolly was to decide to go to trial, in which case she would be at least two years awaiting trial and would face a sentence of between nine and 15 years.

Ms McCollum Connolly (20) from Dungannon, Co Tyrone and Melissa Reid (20) from Glasgow were arrested as they waited to board a flight to Madrid from Lima earlier this month.

Last Wednesday, during a public court appearance, the pair were formally charged with the promotion of drug trafficking and were refused bail.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Madden said both girls were together in Lima’s Virgen de Fatima jail.

They were in a classification area awaiting assessment and were expected to move to a permanent place within the next day or so.

Mr Madden said both girls had given “full accounts” during questioning of what had happened to them and that it had clearly been a case of “duress”.

“They have set out a very horrific story of being kidnapped and held at gunpoint and threatened. That case has been made by both girls,” he said.

“The prosecutor has decided that they must be charged with carrying the drugs because the drugs were undoubtedly found in the suitcase. They have to wait for a trial in order to exonerate themselves. The problem about the Peruvian system is that the system is geared towards people pleading guilty to the offences or recognising their guilt,” Mr Madden added.

If they recognised responsibility for their crime they could serve just over two years in prison.

“ Whereas if they go to trial it will be two years before the trial starts, and then the risk of being convicted would mean that they would get no less than nine years - between 9 and 15 years.”

He said it was a “big decision” and Ms McCollum Connolly’s family were “very concerned, very distraught about her position”.

“She doesn’t have to make any decision for a while, but at some stage a decision will have to be made as to which course she takes.”

“It’s very clearly a case of duress. She was forced to do it. She was under threat the whole time that she was there and it would be unfortunate if she didn’t have the opportunity to have her innocence proven.”

He said both women had been “ fairly light-hearted” when they were arrested at first because “they thought that once they explained the position that they would be released”.

“They didn’t expect to be there very long. I think it’s just sinking in now with both girls how serious the situation is and the fact that they are both going to have to stay in prison for quite a period.”

Mr Madden said he had set up an account for members of the public to help make contributions to the family’s expenses.

“It’s an expensive process for the family. The travelling expenses are very heavy.”

In addition, everything in the prison had to be paid for, including food.

“The family would find that very difficult to do. They are asking members of the public to help out in making a contribution to covering their expenses,” Mr Madden said.

He said his office had received a number of inquiries from people asking how they could contribute.

“There’s been massive publicity for the case both here and in Peru. I think people recognise that the same thing could happen to their own daughter, their own sister in a foreign place.”

Mr Madden noted the prisons in Peru were overcrowded and that the authorities there were trying to tackle this, as well as the various conditions that were “rife” in the prison system, including tuberculosis and HIV.