Drug mule's repatriation approved
The repatriation of Peru drugs mule Michaella McCollum to Northern Ireland has been approved by Stormont's justice minister.
All necessary paperwork has been sent to Peruvian authorities considering the application for transfer, a letter from the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has disclosed.
Melissa Reid, from Scotland, and McCollum, from Co Tyrone, were imprisoned in 2013 for six years and eight months after admitting trying to smuggle cocaine worth £1.5 million from Peru to Spain.
A solicitor has described the conditions of their detention as horrendous.
Stormont minister David Ford said: "After consideration of the facts of this case, including the difficulty encountered in maintaining family contact, I am content to approve the repatriation to Northern Ireland of Michaella McCollum."
McCollum, from Dungannon, and Reid, from Glasgow, were caught with the haul at Lima airport on August 6 2013 attempting to fly to Spain.
They had claimed they were forced into carrying the drugs but pleaded guilty to charges later that year.
The pair were caught trying to board a flight with 24lb of cocaine in food packets hidden inside their luggage.
McCollum and Reid faced the prospect of a maximum 15-year prison term but struck a behind-closed-doors plea bargain to secure a shorter sentence.
Sue McAllister, director general of the NIPS, told McCollum's legal team: "I can confirm that the Peruvian authorities have all of the documentation they require to enable them to make a decision on your client's application for repatriation.
"This paperwork includes confirmation that NIPS is prepared to accept her as a transferred prisoner.
"However, the final decision on the application is a matter for the Peruvian ministry of justice and human rights."
The logistics of the transfer will be complicated, previous unrelated correspondence with McCollum's solicitor Kevin Winters has stated.
Prisoners must be accompanied throughout their journey; airlines and airports must be advised, with security arrangements put in place at departure, transit and final stops. McCollum's final destination would probably be Ash House Women's Prison at Hydebank Wood in south Belfast.
The Scottish Prison Service agreed in principle to a transfer for Reid last year but is still waiting to hear from the Peruvian authorities, who must confirm that they are happy for her to serve the remainder of her sentence under Scottish law.
The pair had previously been held at Lima's Virgen de Fatima prison but were moved to the Ancon 2 prison, where horrific conditions reportedly mean McCollum was crammed in to a cell with 30 other prisoners.
The situation at the mixed prison, which is two and a half hours from Lima, has previously been criticised by the Irishwoman's lawyer as "appalling".
Mr Winters has said sanitation and toilet facilities are extremely poor and all women have to use a hole in the ground which has to be covered up because of the presence of vermin.
Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland programme director of Amnesty International, said: "With Peru's penal system suffering from massive overcrowding, poor access to medical care and endemic corruption, it will be a relief for Michaella McCollum, as well as her family, that she is now a step closer to returning home to complete her sentence."
The cost of housing a prisoner in Northern Ireland was £62,898 in 2013/14, the Justice Department said.
DUP peer Lord Maurice Morrow said: "Having been sentenced to almost seven years imprisonment in 2013 for smuggling 1.9m euro of cocaine, there is still a considerable portion of the sentence to be served. Will the Peruvian government make a contribution or will the Irish government cover the cost as Michaella is an Irish passport holder?
"Whilst I understand the prisoner's family will refund the transfer costs from Peru to Northern Ireland, I have written to the Justice Minister to ascertain who will pay for the cost of housing Miss McCollum within the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
"I understand the families' concerns about conditions in the Peruvian prison however at time when public finances are under pressure, we need to establish facts. These are legitimate questions which many Northern Ireland citizens will be asking."