Belfast Telegraph

Drugs suspect to deny involvement

A solicitor representing one of the two women held on suspicion of drug-smuggling in Peru has said it could be a long time before she is released.

Michaella McCollum Connolly, 20, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, intends to plead not guilty if charged, lawyer Peter Madden said.

He is due to fly out later today for a preliminary court hearing in Lima.

His model client has been accused with Scotswoman Melissa Reid, 19, 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: "It could be a long time. It is a question of considering what the state prosecutor is proposing to do."

He will discuss with local lawyers whether bail would be granted if she is charged. The experienced solicitor has already spoken to the woman and said she was doing as well as could be expected.

"If she is charged, there will be a trial so it could take a while," he said outside George Best Belfast City Airport.

The women claim they are victims of a violent gang who coerced them into carrying the drugs, and say 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.

Mr Madden 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.

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, claim 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 say 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 say they were ordered to carry the cocaine hidden inside food packets.

Mr Madden said his client, who does not speak Spanish, was in a confusing situation and being given advice by a number of people.

"She is certainly bearing up well," he added.

"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."

The investigation is likely to be presided over by a judge and Mr Madden said his aim was to have her conditions of detention improved and ensure she has legal advice during police questioning once he arrives there tomorrow.

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

He has a number of local lawyers in mind but said it needed to be arranged in Peru.

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

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

Relatives of both women are travelling to Peru.

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