Wednesday 20 September 2017

VIDEO: Michaella pleads guilty at a court in Lima

THE Irishwoman accused of trying to smuggle €1.7 million worth of cocaine out of Peru with a Scots friend pleaded guilty in front of a judge today.

Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid admitted to trying to fly from Lima to Spain with more than 11 kilos of the class-A drug in their suitcases.

Their court confession came they spent more than six weeks protesting their innocence and claiming they were forced into becoming drug mules by Colombian mafia who kidnapped them at gunpoint.

They will learn the extent of their sentence at a hearing next Tuesday.

A spokesman for the court in Callao said: "They will automatically have a sixth off from the minimum jail sentence of eight years and will be sentenced to six years and eight months in prison.

"Sentencing will take place on October 1 at a new hearing."

The guilty pleas also means they will not have to stand trial on drugs trafficking charges.

Michaella, from Dungannon, Co. Tryone, and Melissa, from Lenzie near Glasgow, admitted their guilt at a private hearing closed to the press and the public.

The hearing took place in a makeshift courtroom at a men's jail in Lima called Sarita Colonia.

Melissa and Michaella, both 20, were driven the short distance from the nearby Virgen de Fatima women's jail after a soy milk and bread breakfast so they could enter their pleas.

They were heard separately for half an hour each from 11am local time - 5pm in the UK - and asked their names and ages before being given the opportunity to speak.

Last night they were taken back to the prison that has been their home since August 22.

The women's lawyer Meyer Fishman declined to comment as he left the prison after the hearing.

But a spokesman for the fourth criminal court of Callao, in charge of the judicial investigation into Melissa and Michaella, confirmed: "Both women have pleaded guilty to drugs trafficking.

"It means they automatically benefit from a sixth off the minimum sentence of eight years and will be sentenced to six years and eight months in jail.

"Sentencing has not taken place yet and a new hearing where the women will be sentenced has now got to be arranged.

"But it's likely that will take place in around a week's time."

Melissa's parents, energy company manager Billy, 54, and National Grid administrator Debra, 53, insisted last week they still believed their daughter was coerced into carrying cocaine through Lima's Jorge Chavez airport.

But they said a guilty plea was the best course of action for their daughter and her pal, who travelled to Peru from Ibiza where they had been working over the summer.

The pair faced up to 15 years in jail if convicted of drugs smuggling after a trial.

Debbie told a TV programme ahead of today's hearing: "She was definitely carrying the drugs in her luggage. That's for sure.

"But we still believe she was coerced into it. Obviously now we realise she needs to plead guilty just to get her home."

Melissa, speaking from her cell in Peru, said: "After a lot of thought and advice from my lawyer, I'm going to admit I was in possession of the drugs and that I went to Peru to pick up drugs to take to Spain.

"Pleading guilty is going to get me back to my family sooner rather than later. I don't want to be in jail until I'm 35."

Michaella confirmed at the weekend she had also changed her mind about continuing to protest her innocence.

She admitted: "I understand that the judicial process will be simpler if we both plead guilty.

"We are hoping we will not have to wait too long before we are sentenced and pleading guilty will speed things up."

Peruvian police and prosecutors have said from the start they never believed the women's stories about being forced to smuggle drugs.

Police chief Tito Perez, head of the anti-drug's unit's investigations branch where Melissa and Michaella were held for a fortnight after their arrest, said: "What the women said about being kidnapped by armed mafia and forced to come to Peru was illogical."

Chief prosecutor Juan Mendoza Abarca claimed their stories were "incredible" and they had been coached in what to say.

He added: "They staged this whole thing from the beginning because they knew it was possible they would get caught and if they did get caught they had the excuses really well planned.

"It's very obvious they were trained in what to say if they were caught.

"They were prepared in every sense."

The women were arrested on August 6 as they tried to board an Air Europa flight from Lima to Madrid before a second flight to Majorca.

Anti-drug squad officers found nearly six kilos of cocaine hidden in food products in each of their suitcases.

NIghtclub hostess Michaella's worried family launched an Internet appeal for information on her whereabouts after she disappeared from Ibiza before it emerged she was languishing in a police cell in Lima.

The women hoping to qualify for early parole if they receive the six-year-eight month sentences automatically handed down to the vast majority of drug mules who plead guilty in Peru.

Prosecutors hinted at the weekend the women could expect even smaller jail sentences if they co-operated as witnesses against the criminal gang they blame for coercing them.

Lawyers for the girls have said they hope they can be free in as little as two and a half years.

But prosecutors appeared to crush their hopes of an early release by insisting a new law enacted two weeks after the women's arrest eliminated early parole for good behaviour of people convicted of drug trafficking.

The pair are expected to apply for permission to serve some of their sentence in the UK.

Melissa has complained of being bitten by bugs in her insect-infected prison cell in a diary she has been keeping.

Her mum has described the prison conditions as "quite basic" and said everything from toilet rolls to water has to be paid for.

Peru has the second highest rate in the world for arrest charges on people suspected of transporting drugs.

A total of 248 people, or drug 'mules' were arrested at Lima's Jorge Chavez international airport in 2012.

Nearly 1,600 kilos of the illegal drugs, mainly cocaine, was confiscated by those arrested.

The majority of those arrested last year were Spanish.

A UN study released today said Peru has replaced Colombia as the world's top producer of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Ger Couzens in Lima

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