New law may be positive for Irish woman in Peru

Congress is debating legislation that would reduce sentences served by foreign nationals

A proposed new law currently before the Peruvian congress could have positive implications for an Irish woman if she is convicted of trying to smuggle cocaine worth €1.7 million out of the country.

Michaella McCollum Connolly (20) from Dungannon, Co Tyrone and her co-accused Melissa Reid (20) from Glasgow are awaiting trial for drug trafficking in the Virgen de Fatima Women's prison in the Peruvian capital.

Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid were arrested as they waited to board a flight to Madrid from Lima earlier this month. They have said they were threatened by armed men into carrying food packages - which were later found to contain cocaine - in their luggage.

The proposed legislation aims to reduce the sentence served by foreign prisoners for drug trafficking by one third.


Boris Potozén, chief of the office of legal council for the Council of Ministers said that "Peru will exercise its legal right to impose restrictions on and expel foreigners convicted of crimes linked to drug trafficking".

Jails in Peru are significantly overcrowded and the sharp rise in the number of foreign inmates has put further strain on the system. The legislation aims to reduce prison overcrowding.

There are 68 prisons in Peru with a capacity for 28,000 prisoners. At the moment there are over 64,500 people being held in jail.

If passed by congress president Ollanta Humala has 15 days to sign the bill into law.

This law will only apply to foreign prisoners who have been sentenced to no more than seven years in jail, who have completed one third of the sentence and who are entitled to conditional release.

In order to qualify, foreign prisoners are expected to pay in full any fines and financial compensation imposed by the court.

For Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid to benefit from this new law they would both probably have to have to plead guilty to possessions of the 5.5kg of cocaine found in their luggage at Jorge Chavez International Airport on the 7th of August.

The time they spend awaiting trial - which could be months or even years - counts towards their sentence.

Once lawyers present the request for conditional release to the director of the prison, the request goes before a judge who has three days to deny or grant the request.

DIGEMIN, the migrations service in Peru then has another three says to expel the person in question.

It is expected that the home country will then assume responsibility for the sentence.

DIGEMIN has warned about the increasing number of former inmates on conditional release in the country.

Many prisoners are released in a two-for-one system, meaning they effectively serve half their sentence out of jail. The problem with foreigners convicted of crimes is that they are expected to remain in Peru while they complete the rest of their sentence.

Most foreigners on conditional release end up in no man’s land in the sense that they are unable to leave the country or find work in Peru while completing their time. Most rely on charities and religious organizations to survive.

The Virgen de Fatima prison where Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid are being held has a prison population of just over 400, of this approximately 300 are awaiting trial and about 260 are being held for drug trafficking.

They are the only foreigners being held at the prison.

The lawyer acting for Ms McCollum Connolly 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 her 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.

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