Belfast Telegraph

We're a normal family and she's the baby... sister tells of anguish as drug charge Michaella faces 25 years in grim Peruvian prison

Dungannon relatives anxiously await judicial decision on possible trial

BY ADRIAN RUTHERFORD

The sister of a young Northern Ireland model facing 25 years in a Peru prison has described her family's concern for their "baby".

Michaella McCollum Connolly (20) is being held in a women's jail in Lima on suspicion of trying to smuggle around £1.5m of cocaine out of the country.

She was detained along with a 19-year-old British woman by drug enforcement officers at Lima airport – just days after being reported missing by her family.

Peruvian police said they found more than 11kg of cocaine hidden in their luggage.

Officers said the pair had been planning to fly on from Madrid to Palma in Mallorca.

As Michaella awaits news on whether she will face trial – a decision to be made by a judge – her family said they had been left stunned by her arrest.

Speaking at the family home in Dungannon yesterday, her older sister Samantha McCollum said they were trying to "get our heads around" the news.

"She's the baby, I'm her older sister," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"This is a normal family – this is not a normal situation. Right now, we don't know [what's happening] – it's all in the air."

Michaella was arrested last Tuesday with Melissa Reid, from Lenzie near Glasgow, as they tried to board a flight to Madrid. The pair were stopped at the Air Europa counter at Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport.

In a statement, Peruvian police said: "Police searched the women's luggage. They found 18 packets of food products with cocaine which weighed 5.78kg in Melissa Reid's suitcases. Sixteen packets of food products with cocaine weighing 5.81kg were found in Michaella McCollum Connolly's suitcases."

Samantha said:"What the press have already written, there is so much stuff that is not true," she added. "At the moment we're just, upset, we don't want nobody coming to the door.

"We will be giving a statement, but not right this moment."

She said her mother, Nora, has been particularly upset.

"We're just trying to not think of the media right now because some stuff is quite upsetting for mummy and there's been some pictures in the paper which are very distressing," she added.

Michaella, originally from Monaghan and who was living in the Crumlin Road area of north Belfast before leaving for Ibiza, was travelling on an Irish passport.

Ireland's recently-retired Consul General in Lima Michael Russell said the two women could face up to a quarter of a century behind bars if convicted.

The severity of any sentence would relate to the size of the drugs haul. If they were convicted of possession of the lesser amount allegedly found in their own luggage, a penalty of seven years could be expected.

But if one was found guilty of being responsible for the overall haul of more than 24lb in both sets of luggage, they could be imprisoned for between 15 and 25 years.

Inmates can apply for parole after serving a third of a sentence in some circumstances.

Mr Russell described the conditions in Peruvian jails as horrible. "They are pretty dour and pretty horrible," he said. "It's all a matter of money, quite frankly. You have to buy your space, you have to buy your food. If you don't have money you suffer quite a lot."

Mr Russell retired at the end of last month, and Ireland has not replaced its Honorary Consul General in the Peruvian capital.

"It's being handled by the British embassy," he said.

The ex-diplomat said there is an Irish Peruvian chamber of commerce and an ad hoc Irish committee that has in the past helped Irish citizens imprisoned or hospitalised in the country.

In Peru, the State will appoint a solicitor if the defendant does not have one. Mr Russell said they are "not always the best" lawyers.

Mr Russell said Peru does not like keeping foreign prisoners for a number of reasons, including cost, which can be to the benefit of anyone from overseas convicted in the country.

The Foreign Office in London said it was helping a British national.

The Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs said it was also providing consular assistance to the family of an Irish woman being held in Peru on suspicion of drug trafficking offences.

STORY SO FAR

Michaella McCollum Connolly (20), a photography student, was living in Belfast until June when she travelled to San Antonio in Ibiza for a working holiday.

She was looking for work as a dancer and nightclub hostess. Her family believed she was working on the Spanish island until contact suddenly dropped off two weeks ago.

Her family launched an online campaign in a bid to find Michaella but were stunned last Thursday when they were informed that she had been arrested in Peru on suspicion of being an international drugs mule.

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