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Havana jail horror ends

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — After a 22-month nightmare in a Cuban prison, a London-Irish woman has been unexpectedly freed and deported this week.

Rachel McGee, who is 24, has always maintained she was innocent of drug trafficking charges that left her facing a 15-year sentence.

"It’s fantastic. I fought so hard for this," said her mother Maureen McGee, a native of Kilrush, Co Clare, who lobbied the Irish and British governments to intercede with the Cuban authorities.

"I couldn’t believe it when she rang me at 5 a.m. from a hotel in Havana to say she was free. It always knew she would be coming home, it was just a case of when."

Rachel, a secretary, was on a three-week holiday in Cuba in November 1998 when was arrested. She was held as part of a drugs sting involving four smugglers who brought in 15 kilos of cocaine, worth about £9 million, from Jamaica.

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Cuban police found the smugglers knew one of a group of British men Rachel had met while on holiday. Despite her constant denials that she knew anything about the drugs, Rachel was charged with "association" with the smuggling ten months after she was arrested.

She could not afford her own lawyer and a state defender was appointed. She doesn’t speak Spanish and the lawyer told her not to say anything as she was innocent and would not be convicted.

However, the court found her guilty and she was sentenced to 15 years. The Cuban authorities have now annulled her conviction.

Also freed was Michelle Malcolm, a British women who was arrested at the same time as Rachel and also given 15 years. Two other British men and four Jamaicans are still in prison.

Worried about her daughter’s failing health, Maureen — a mother of five who now lives in London’s Canning Town — made desperate appeals to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair to help Rachel.

She flew to Havana in July and brought home a personal letter to the Taoiseach after visiting McGee in the Occidente women’s prison outside Havana.

In her hand-written plea for help, Rachel told the Taoiseach he was her "last hope" and said she was a victim of a "terrible injustice."

"Its clear that I am innocent and there is no evidence to back the accusation. I don’t know what you can do to help me but I am asking you to try."

Her brother David, who is 28, said she was delighted to be free. "Rachel hasn’t been well and one of the first things that will have to be done is get her checked out by tropical disease specialists."

McGee’s case was also taken up by the group, Fair Trials Abroad, who campaign against injustices.

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