Amnesty concern over Peruvian prisons

Watchdog highlights overcrowding and poor conditions as footage of accused women shown

Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) and Melissa Reid at Lima airport. Photograph: Reuters

Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) and Melissa Reid at Lima airport. Photograph: Reuters



Amnesty International has expressed concern about prison conditions in Peru, where Co Tyrone woman Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid, from Scotland, are being held on suspicion of drug trafficking.

The organisation’s Northern Ireland programme director, Patrick Corrigan, said Peru’s national human rights ombudsman had reported that overcrowding in Peru’s prisons was acute and conditions poor.

“There are almost 50,000 prisoners in Peru for fewer than 30,000 prison places. Many prisoners report having to sleep in corridors,” he said. “The number of foreign nationals held in Peru has been growing steadily in the last few years, due to an increase in arrests for cocaine trafficking.”

Mr Corrigan said inmates had “very limited” access to medical care and, according to some reports, must pay for “sufficient food and drinking water”.

His comments followed the release of video footage yesterday showing Ms McCollum Connolly (20) and Ms Reid (19), being interviewed at Jorge Chávez international airport after police allegedly found €1.7 million worth of cocaine inside food packaging in their suitcases.

In the video Ms Reid said she was forced to take the bags containing the drugs and that she was unaware they contained cocaine.

At their family home in Dungannon, Ms McCollum Connolly’s mother Nora said “the situation is terrible for everyone”.

“At the moment we don’t know anything. We don’t know what is happening at all,” she said.

The family’s parish priest Dean Colum Curry said they were struggling to come to terms with the plight but were trying to stay positive. “It is just like a nightmare for them,” he said. “They feel intimidated with all the callers to the door and feel a bit like prisoners in their own home”.

“They are afraid to say anything that might jeopardise the situation,” he said. “It is very hard to know who to trust because the system is so corrupt and that makes the situation even more worrying for them.”

Ms Reid’s father William told reporters at his home that the family were going through a “living nightmare” and had not slept since finding out the pair were being detained.

He said Melissa was “bright, beautiful, bubbly and intelligent, just like her Facebook page shows”. He said he had had a brief phone conversation with his daughter, during which he told her to be strong and not to get too emotional.

He said there was “no way” Melissa would have gone along willingly with a plan to smuggle drugs and he felt that, while on holiday, she might have been “groomed” by somebody whom she may have thought was a friend.

Ms McCollum Connolly’s family were making arrangements to travel to Peru, but Mr Reid said his family had no plans to do so at the moment. He feared that going to the country could put his daughter in “greater danger”.

Lead investigator Major Manuel Siclla has told the Scottish Sun that the two women were worried about their families and about what the future would hold for them.

“They will be tried and face long prison sentences if convicted,” he said. “We take this problem very seriously here in Peru and courts are very strict about the enforcement of the law.”

He said the pair, if found guilty, could be sent to Lima’s Santa Monica de Chorrillos women’s prison.

A 2012 report by the United States Department of State noted that Santa Monica had 1,035 inmates, more than double the capacity it was designed for (450). It said inmates in Peruvian prisons had intermittent access to potable water, inadequate bathing facilities and unhygienic kitchen facilities.

However, it was noted that inmates with money had access to cell phones, illegal drugs and meals prepared outside the prison.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas said it was providing assistance to seven Irish prisoners in South and Central America, but it would not comment on whether the council was providing assistance to Ms McCollum Connolly.
– (Additional reporting PA)