Belfast Telegraph

Parolee McCollum to work with HIV patients while she awaits a decision on repatriation

By Cate McCurry

Drugs mule Michaella McCollum is working to help people with HIV following her release from prison in Peru.

However, the Co Tyrone woman could face another six years in the capital Lima despite being freed from the Ancon 2 prison.

The 23-year-old was released early under legislation introduced last year but is still waiting to see if she will be granted permission to return home to Northern Ireland.

McCollum, from Dungannon, was arrested alongside Melissa Reid, from Lenzie in Scotland, in August 2013 as they tried to leave Peru on a plane bound for Madrid, with Majorca their final destination.

A search by airport security discovered 24lbs of cocaine with a street value of approximately £1.5 million hidden inside food packets in their luggage.

McCollum is now spending time with her mother Norah, who flew out to Lima ahead of her daughter's early release.

Archbishop Sean Walsh, an Irish-American with the Eastern Catholic Church in Lima, said the drugs mule appeared in court on Tuesday.

"Michaella answered all their queries to their satisfaction," he added.

"She handled herself very well. She wants life to be different. She gave evidence of the seriousness of her intent, so we are off to a good start.

"She has started to work as a volunteer with a church and is working with Fr Cathal Gallagher, a Columbian priest in Peru, helping people who are HIV-positive or have Aids.

"She will be on parole for another 50 months, but she can apply to leave Peru and go back to Ireland.

"Michaella has been through a hard time. Prison in Peru is not a walk in the park. It's a difficult thing. Some break under the strains, some attempt suicide.

"She and her friend Melissa have really been model prisoners in many ways and have been good examples. They stood forward as people who want to live their lives to their best and get out and do good things."

McCollum's solicitor Kevin Winters confirmed she was released from prison at 5pm on Thursday following a successful application for parole.

He said that his client had not been released under any repatriation scheme or other agreement between Peru and the UK. There will be a judicial hearing to determine the conditions of her parole conditions. "It remains unclear when Michaella may be eligible to return home," Mr Winters added. "That will be a matter for the court and a pending judicial hearing, (which will) determine the conditions.

"We are working with her lawyers in Peru and we hope to be in a position to clarify further as soon as possible."

Bishop Walsh, who visited McCollum in prison just a few days ago, added: "She is, of course, quite relieved and thankful to God that the course of life has gone this way.

"Probably she will remain in Lima. She will be allowed to work and study if she wants to do that.

"Being on parole means that she only has to check in with the clerk and the prison system office for special and psychological questioning and to ensure that she remains in the country."

McCollum and Reid initially claimed they were forced at gunpoint into carrying the cocaine for a South American drugs cartel. However, both women later pleaded guilty.

Upon their arrest the drugs mules' families were warned both could face up to 15 years behind bars. However, after a plea bargain they were convicted and sentenced to six years and eight months in jail in December 2013.

McCollum and Reid were then moved from Lima's Virgen de Fatima jail to Santa Monica prison in Chorrillo to begin their sentence, which was due to last until April 2020.

The jail, which is notorious for its crowded and unsanitary conditions, has in the past been used to house foreign women convicted of crimes.

The repatriation of McCollum to Northern Ireland was approved by Stormont Justice Minister David Ford in January last year, but she remained in prison in Peru.

A court will now decide whether she can come back to Northern Ireland immediately or if she will have to remain in Peru for the foreseeable future.

Belfast Telegraph


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