Two women held over suspected drug trafficking in Peru have claimed they were forced to act at gunpoint by Colombian gangsters.
A churchman who visited 20-year-old Irish woman Michaella McCollum Connolly and 19-year-old Melissa Reid from Scotland in a police holding centre in Lima said the two women had no choice but to follow orders.
Sean Walsh, an Irish-American archbishop with the Eastern Catholic Church, said: “They told me that there were a group of Colombians that actually took them at gunpoint and threatened them.”
The Archbishop said the women were held for a while by the gang before being taken to Morocco and back again to Peru.
“I don’t know how that happened, and I don’t know how they got over to Peru,” he said.
“There’s no direct flight from Morocco, they go through Spain probably, but if they threatened them in some way that to me seems like a credible defence.”
Connolly and Reid are due to appear in court tomorrow accused of attempting to smuggle an estimated €1.7m worth of cocaine out of South America.
The Archbishop, who has been working with prisoners in Peru for several years, said he met with the two women for half an hour in the police offices of the holding centre.
“If they have been coerced or threatened as I think they are going to argue, then the fact that they physically had it in their possession may not mean that they were intentionally or wilfully doing it,” he said.
“If they were forced with threats on their life or something then they might not have gone through with this.”
The cleric said he believed the women would plead innocent on the basis of coercion.
The Archbishop said he did not see the cells the women were staying in but believed they were being treated well, and said one of their chief concerns was for their families.
In a further development tonight, Ms McCollum Connolly's lawyer said her family are confident she will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
“Michaella’s family are obviously shocked and distressed by the recent events but are confident that Michaella will be exonerated,” said solicitor Peter Madden.
The family are making arrangements to travel to Peru and have contacted support groups in Lima to help her in the meantime. They are also arranging legal representation.
Mr Madden added: “I spoke to Michaella last night and she emphasised that she denied that she was guilty of any offence. She is well. She is not on hunger strike.
“She is finding it difficult to cope with the current situation, so far from home, but is optimistic.”
Ms McCollum Connolly has denied involvement in any criminal offence to the Peruvian authorities.
Footage has also emerged from the police interview where a police officer asked Melissa if she knew the suitcases contained drugs.
In the online video, Ms Reid is questioned by a police interviewer and is heard to say: “I was forced to take these bags in my luggage.”
When asked if she knew they contained drugs, the 19-year-old from Lenzie in East Dunbartonshire, said: “I did not know that.”
A former senior diplomat warned Peru was cracking down on crime and, if convicted, the women could face harsher new conditions ruling out parole.
Michael Russell, who recently retired from as Ireland’s consul general in Lima, said the government was under pressure to push through “draconian laws” to assert more law and order.
“This could be very bad timing for these girls if these laws come in,” he said.
“There is a lot of pressure to stamp out crime with more police guards, tougher sentences – and that is across the board, not just for drug smugglers.”
Mr Russell, vice-president of the Irish Peruvian Chamber of Commerce, will meet the girls this evening and explain to them what they face.
“First, I’m going to find out if they need anything, such as toiletries for personal hygiene,” Mr Russell said.
“Secondly, I’m going to listen to their story and I’m going to tell them my experience with other prisoners in similar situations. Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m going to tell them they need a good lawyer. That is their priority.”
Mr Russell said state-appointed lawyers have a reputation for failing to form strong defence cases, mainly because they work pro bono.
He supported calls from Mr Walsh for financial support from abroad for the girls.
“They’ll need it if they are to get a lawyer and that’s essential,” he said.
Mr Russell said the archbishop was “a very honest man”, who has vast experience helping Irish and British prisoners in Peru, and raising money for their support – all of which, he said, goes through official channels.