Women charged in Peru over drug smuggling are refused bail

Lawyer for McCollum Connolly ‘surprised’ at late law change to hold hearing in public


Two women arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle cocaine worth € 1.7 million from Peru have been refused bail and could spend up to three years in prison awaiting trial, it emerged last night.

Michaella McCollum Connolly (20) from Dungannon, Co Tyrone and Melissa Reid (20) from Glasgow, face a maximum prison sentence of 15 years if convicted of illegal drugs trafficking.

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

They were moved from the courthouse to another in central Lima, where they will be held for a day or two until they are moved to one of the women’s prisons - most likely Santa Monica in the south east of the city.

Judge Dilo Huaman remanded the pair in custody after rejecting their pleas for bail. The women, who were present in court, were led away in handcuffs.

The judge listened as the prosecutor outlined the case and the defence responded. He then asked the women, who looked tired and drawn, why they had not asked for help at any point. Both women responding through their interpreter said that they had been threatened and were afraid to do so.

The public prosecutor said that their story was “incoherent”. The prosecutor’s office said it will seek a custodial sentence of between 8-15 years.

The judge said there was enough evidence to formally charge them with drug trafficking. Miss McCollum and Miss Reid were both charged with the illegal trafficking of just over 5kg of cocaine.

A surprise change in the law on Tuesday meant that the hearing which was supposed to be held in private was actually held in public.

Their lawyer Peter Madden said that the women, their lawyers and family were completely unaware of this change in regulation.

“What was particularly upsetting was that the families of the two girls were not present at the hearing because they had been told that the session would take place in strict privacy with only the judge, the accused and relevant legal representatives allowed to attend.” said Mr Madden.

He described the women as “shell-shocked” when they went into the courtroom and realised it was in open court. He also said that Michaella McCollum, Melissa Reid, their lawyer and families should have been informed about this new situation.

The hearing came after they got their first real taste of prison life by spending a night in cramped court cells with no food or bedding.

Their first two weeks since their arrest on suspicion of drugs trafficking were spent in the relative comfort of police cells before their hand-over to state prosecutors to be charged.

The punishment for the crime the pair are accused of carries a prison sentence of between eight and 15 years in Peru.

State prosecutors charged them less than 24 hours after police handed them over following a two-week investigation.

The two women were arrested on August 6th after police found 11kg of cocaine in their luggage at Lima International Airport.

The women, who were living and working in bars in Ibiza over the summer, claim they were forced to Peru to bring back drugs to Europe by armed Colombian criminals who threatened them and their families if they failed to obey orders and followed them every step of the way.

Police have cast doubt on the women’s claims and say they suspect they were simply in it for the money like other mules caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Peru, the world’s biggest cocaine producer.

The women - along with over half the inmates of Peruvian prisons - are likely to spend months or even years awaiting trial and sentencing.

A spokesman for Peru’s Prison Service, which will decide where to remand them after medicals and psychological tests, said late last night: “They have yet to be handed over to us but we expect that to take place this week.”

Commenting this evening Ms McCollum Connolly’s lawyer Peter Madden said the two women had effectively begun serving a prison sentence after they were refused bail.

“Their main concern at the minute is that they may be separated, sent to different prisons,” he said.

“They are very concerned that might happen. They did not know each other before this started, they have now become best friends.”

Mr Madden said the girls were “confused and frightened”.

He said both women had been threatened at gunpoint in Ibiza where they had been working since the beginning of June, adding they were forced under duress to travel to Peru to smuggle cocaine in their luggage.

He said the women, who both deny the allegations, would enter not guilty pleas.

Ms McCollum Connolly’s brother Keith was not allowed to visit his sister in a holding cell in a courthouse in Callao. Mr Madden and a local priest did gain access to her and said there was no bedding or mattresses provided for the women to sleep on.

“Each time I see them they are getting more and more worried.”

“I know they were very frightened today, because they were put into a very small confined area with pretty Spartan conditions.”

The women deny the drug trafficking allegations and claim they were forced to carry the bags by armed men.

If they contest the charges it is estimated that they will have to wait a year and a half if not longer if the before the case goes to trial.

If they plead guilty the case might come before the court in six months.