Peru drug suspects prepare to face court tomorrow

Lawyer Peter Madden concerned that Michaella McCollum Connolly could be held for months before trial

Belfast lawyer Peter Madden has expressed concern that drug-smuggling suspect Michaella McCollum Connolly could be held for months or years in Peru before her case goes to trial.

He was speaking as Ms McCollum Connolly (20) from Co Tyrone and co-accused Melissa Reid (20) from Scotland prepare to go before court for the first time tomorrow.

Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid were arrested as they tried to board a flight from Lima to Madrid on August 6th. Peruvian authorities say they found more than €1.7 million worth of cocaine in food products in their luggage.

Mr Madden said his client would be protesting her innocence. “I have serious concerns about this process. If Michaella wants to defend herself, she has to get a trial and there is no chance of bail [while awaiting trial]. She is going to be actually serving a prison sentence whether or not she gets acquitted.

“I am looking into whether or not there is any way to challenge that and will be discussing it with the lawyers to see if anything can be done.”

The two women could face a prison sentence of at least seven years if convicted.

Mr Madden said a hearing was expected tomorrow, “although there is no guarantee, but we will be ready for that”.

Version of events
"We spent seven hours on Friday evening going through Michaella's version of events," he said. "It was a very, very serious ordeal she describes. She was forced to fly to Palma, Majorca, after threats were made and a copy of her passport was produced as well as photos of her family, which she thinks came from Facebook."

Mr Madden said Ms McCollum Connolly was told that she had to follow instructions and that she was in fear throughout the process. He also said that she had been out of touch with her family because she was told people were watching her and that if she made any contact with her family there would be serious consequences.

"The bizarre aspect of this is that she was instructed to fly to Lima, meet Melissa and then go together to Cuzco posing as tourists so that when they came back to the airport they would be able to show that they were on a tourist trip," said Mr Madden.

“The girls were given a camera and instructed to pose in photographs smiling, so that if they were stopped by authorities they could convince them they were tourists.”

Local police are in possession of the camera and photographs.

When they returned to Lima from Cuzco, Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid were instructed to carry luggage with food packages in it. “At that stage, even though Michaella didn’t know what was in the packages, she had her suspicions.”

Mr Madden said the plan was to return to Palma, Mallorca, with the drugs. He said it seemed the women were "handled" by a gang that operated in Spain and Peru. "It was a pretty sophisticated operation and was very well planned."

Mr Madden was unsure if the case would be heard in the police station where the women have been held for the past 12 days. “I am not sure yet because we haven’t been told: the police don’t let us know until the last minute.”

Both women are being represented by local lawyers Fischman & Fischman. Mr Madden and official state interpreters have been present during all the proceedings.

As soon as the judge decides there is a case to answer, the judicial process will begin and they will be transferred to prison, most likely Santa Monica, a women's prison on the outskirts of Lima.

“Michaella is pretty worried. It is an alien environment and it is a pretty grim place for a young 20-year-old girl,” said Mr Madden.

He confirmed that the defence case would centre on the claim that Ms McCollum Connolly and Ms Reid were coerced into flying to Peru to collect the drugs and take them to Mallorca.