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Sunday 23 April 2017

‘The girls seem to be telling the truth’ – father

A SOLICITOR for a woman accused of trying to smuggle €1.7m worth of cocaine said he intends to discuss her case with police in Peru today.

Human rights lawyer Peter Madden will this afternoon go to a police holding centre in Lima where Michaella McCollum Connolly and co-accused Melissa Reid are being detained.

In a statement released last night through his Belfast-based firm, Mr Madden said he would not be commenting on the case until after the meeting.

"Mr Peter Madden lawyer of Michaella McCollum will not be making any comment on behalf of his client until he has further spoken to his client in relation to her situation in Peru.

"He intends to attend the police station tomorrow afternoon and will make a statement outside afterwards and answer questions," the statement said.

Ms McCollum Connolly from Dungannon, Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland and Ms Reid, 20, from Glasgow are being held on drug trafficking allegations.

The pair were arrested last week while trying to board a flight from Lima to Madrid. Police said they found around 11 kilos of cocaine hidden inside food packages in their luggage.

Both women deny the allegations and claim they were forced to carry the bags by armed men.

They have yet to be formally charged but could be held up for up to 30 days before appearing in court. If refused bail they face up to three years in jail before a trial.

Previously, Mr Madden who provided legal representation for three Irish republicans arrested in 2001 in Colombia for allegedly training members of Farc, said he hoped the legal system in Peru would be fair.

"I think there is hope but it depends very much on the prosecuting authorities here as to whether or not they're going to do this in a fair way, because the process here seems to be that once you're charged there's no bail for these type of offences and she will have to go to trial," he said.

Both women had travelled separately to the party island of Ibiza in search of work this summer.

Before news of the arrests broke the family of Ms McCollum Connolly, a photography student and former nightclub hostess, had launched an internet campaign fearing she was missing.

Meanwhile, a senior Spanish police officer said he did not believe they had been acting under duress.

First sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, the head of the Ibiza police unit responsible for countering organised crime, told the BBC: "In my experience I don't think these two girls were forced to do this because - particularly when you go to South America - you need to pass several controls.

"The first thing you do is go to the passport control and say 'Listen, this is what is happening to me'. The policeman will react so I don't think they were forced."

Further questions about the two women's version of events were raised following the emergence of photographs that allegedly show them posing on a balcony and on a beach with glasses of beer days before they were arrested at Lima airport.

The pair say they were told to take photos of themselves at tourist spots to make it look like they were friends travelling together, a British newspaper said.

Ms Reid's father, William Reid, who flew to Peru to be with his daughter, agreed the photos were ambiguous, but told the newspaper: "I want to know who took that picture of them on their balcony. Was it taken by a third person or by a minder, and who was drinking the beer?

"That wasn't Melissa's beer in the photo because I have never in my entire life seen her drink beer. She drinks a lot of water and, if she is drinking, it would be vodka."

He added: "I believe the trip to the beach was part of a set-up that they asked them to smile to build up a portrayal of them as happy holidaymakers.

"Melissa said they said they had been told by the men that they weren't smiling enough in the pictures and they told them to look happier.

"I can only go by what I have been firmly told by the girls. The two girls' stories are very tight, very consistent, with a lot of detail and they seem to be telling the truth as far as I can gauge."

He added that Ms Reid had never shown an interest in going to Peru, and was already on her "dream holiday", saying: "To me that suggests she was not there willingly."

Peruvian police are expected to hand their investigation to the state prosecutor's office today so that formal charges can be made against the two women, the BBC said.

The findings will form the basis of a pre-trial hearing that will determine what the pair are to be charged with.

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

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