Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Michaella 'denies Peru drug claims'

A police officer walks past the Peruvian police anti-drug headquarters where Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid are being held (AP)

An Irishwoman arrested on suspicion of drug-smuggling in Peru will plead not guilty if charged, her solicitor has declared.

As he left Belfast for Lima, lawyer Peter Madden confirmed that Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, would deny any allegations but warned that legal proceedings could be lengthy. He said his client was doing well in police custody but it was a difficult position for a "young girl" to be in.

His model client from Northern Ireland and Scotswoman Melissa Reid, 19, are suspected by detectives of trying to leave the country with £1.5 million of cocaine in their luggage.

They were detained while trying to board a flight from the Peruvian capital to Spain last week.

Mr Madden said: "She is saying she has done nothing wrong, that she is innocent and that as far as any offences are concerned, if she is charged she will be denying it."

Mr Madden, a hugely experienced lawyer, is due to attend a preliminary court hearing in Lima but wants to arrange local legal representation while she is questioned by police and intends to stay there at least a week. He arrives tomorrow.

The women claimed they are victims of a violent gang who coerced them into carrying the drugs, and said they have resigned themselves to the likelihood that they face a lengthy prison term.

Police are waiting for a translator before officially questioning them, which is expected to happen in the next few days.

Ms Reid and Ms McCollum Connolly have claimed they were given the 24lb of cocaine outside their hotel, the Hotel Colonial San Agustin in the capital Lima, the day before they were due to fly back to Spain.

The pair, who deny drug trafficking, claimed they were ordered at gunpoint by Colombian gangsters to smuggle the drugs out of Lima.

The two women had been working on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where they said they were snared by a drug cartel, robbed of their passports and phones and followed as they travelled on separate flights from Spain to Peru.

Once in South America, they said they were ordered to carry the cocaine hidden inside food packets.

Mr Madden said his client, who does not speak Spanish, found herself in a confusing situation.

Ms Reid and Ms McCollum Connolly may be held pre-charge for up to 30 days and could then spend up to three years in prison before a trial.

Mr Madden said: "It could be a long time. It is a question of considering what the state prosecutor is proposing to do."

If convicted, they could face lengthy sentences in an overcrowded Peruvian prison where they will have to pay for everything, including food and bedding, sources close to the justice regime said.

Mr Madden added: "She sounded well, she is in a difficult position, it is a difficult position for a young girl to be in that environment."

He is one of Northern Ireland's best-known lawyers and has been involved in a number of high profile cases.

A former colleague of murdered human rights solicitor Pat Finucane who was shot dead by loyalists in north Belfast in 1989, he was involved in the legal representation of three Irish republicans who were arrested in 2001 in Colombia for allegedly training members of FARC. They eventually returned to Ireland in 2005.

Relatives of both women are travelling to Peru.

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