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Michaella McCollum should be given chance to atone for crimes

By Gail Walker

Published 05/04/2016

Michaella McCollum in the RTE interview broadcast last night
Michaella McCollum in the RTE interview broadcast last night
Michaella McCollum during her exclusive first interview with the Irish broadcaster RTE (RTE/PA)
Michaella McCollum after her arrest

For all the amazing makeover, her apparently penitent attitude and the gentle cooing of interviewers, we shouldn't feel too much sympathy for newly-released Peruvian drug mule Michaella McCollum.

She did what she did. She knew what she was doing. She wasn't coerced.

Despite attempts to portray the Dungannon woman as naive and hapless, a victim caught between sinister drug cartels and a heartless foreign legal system, hers is one of the less convincing sob-stories of recent times.

Getting drunk on the Costas is certainly the act of a silly, easily-led Irish girl whose head had been turned by the allure of foreign climes. But getting involved with an international drug-smuggling cartel? Vanishing off the map for days as a worldwide missing persons hunt gets under way? Attempting to leave Peru with cocaine worth a staggering £1.5m in her luggage?

And we shouldn't forget that - until her conviction - she repeatedly lied about having been "kidnapped" by drug lords and how she did what she did because "they" were threatening her family.

The Lima court saw through her lies, evasions and half-truths and sentenced the model to six years.

Many will think that she got off lightly to begin with - drug mules in Peru face up to 15 years in prison. Another stroke of good fortune has seen McCollum out on parole from Lima's Ancon 2 prison last Thursday after serving only two years and three months, on the basis of early release legislation introduced last year.

True, Michaella faces living for four years in Lima before she can come home. But that is hardly a punishment: she has already landed voluntary positions with two Catholic charities who will provide food and lodgings for the Tyrone woman.

Indeed, Bishop Sean Walsh, Lima-based priest and head of one of the Catholic charities, said: "She opted for getting out on parole in Peru. The fact is she is blending in better in this culture than the majority of foreign prisoners, so she will fit in comfortably to life in the city."

Given the cartoon version of Peruvian justice we in Europe were treated to at the time of her arrest, in fact her treatment has been exemplary. Certainly not the cockroach-infested, shackled to a wall, Midnight Express-style incarceration we had been led to believe was in store.

Michaella McCollum Connolly in one of the Ibiza clubs where she worked as a dancer
PARTY SCENE: Michaella in Ibiza
Michaella McCollum Connolly in one of her club hostess outfits
Michaella McCollum after her arrest
CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Michaella and Melissa caught on CCTV loading bags into a car in Peru
Michaella McCollum's mother Norah McCollum and sister Samantha McCollum vist the Peru prison
Melissa Reid
Michaella McCollum and ex-boyfriend Dwayne Mullan
Dungannon drugs mule Michaella McCollum
Michaella McCollum Connolly, handcuffed, arrives for a court hearing in Lima, Peru, clutching the book 'Secrets About Life Every Woman Should Know: Ten principles for spiritual and emotional fulfillment' (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)
Michaella McCollum Connolly arrives to court for her sentencing in Callao, Peru (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
Police escort Michaella McCollum Connolly (right) and Melissa Reid (front) in handcuffs as they are moved from the National Police anti-drug headquarters to a court to be formally charged for drug trafficking in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013
Michaella McCollum Connolly with reality TV star Mark Wright at a promotional night hosted by Belfast's M Club
Michaella McCollum Connolly with Brad Houston from England
Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly with rugby star Tommy Bowe while doing promotional work at an official Ulster Rugby event

Many will also have been a bit shocked by her being interviewed by RTE immediately upon her release. Sporting a soft new blonde hairdo, fashionably-ripped jeans and rather fetching white jacket, Michaella made all the right noises during an interrogation that was less Panorama and more This Morning.

We had the seemingly full and frank confession. Speaking of what might have happened if she had been successful in smuggling the cocaine to Europe, she observed: "I probably would have had a lot of blood on my hands. I potentially could have filled Europe full of a lot of drugs. I could have potentially killed a lot of people, not directly, but I could have caused a lot of harm to people."

Talking about her punishment, she waxes lyrical, but avoids an aggrieved tone: "I've forgotten the things that everybody takes for granted in life. Seeing the sun, seeing the darkness, seeing the moon and the stars, things I haven't seen in almost three years."

McCollum has a bottom line: "I made a decision in a moment of madness. I'm not a bad person. I want to demonstrate that I'm a good person."

But that surely is the nub of the issue which has cynics - like me - finding McCollum's protestations lacking in weight.

Still, she has done her time. We may sneer that she got off lightly, but there seems to have been no special treatment for the Dungannon woman.

And it would be more surprising if her experiences in Vigen de Fatima and Ancon 2 hadn't profoundly affected her. Twenty-seven months in a foreign prison must have done something to McCollum - even if only to make her think, "I'm never going to let myself ever be put in prison again".

It would also be surprising if the invective - most justified, some not - shown by her "ain folk" back in Northern Ireland didn't give her pause for thought. It must be hard to be the punchline to a million jokes - and not just about your hair. Her crimes and her lies made her look like a hard-bitten lowlife.

But it would be wrong to deny her the chance of being changed. We put people in prison because - as well as public safety and punishment - we believe it affords a chance of rehabilitation. By all accounts, she was a model prisoner. She has made an effort to learn Spanish and has volunteered to work for two charities, one working with people with HIV.

Slick PR, or a demonstration of intent? We must judge Michaella by her own words: "I'm not a bad person. I want to demonstrate that I'm a good person."

Slightly galling it might be, but decency calls for us to give McCollum the benefit of the doubt.

The onus is, however, very firmly on her not to prove herself a liar - again.

Belfast Telegraph

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