Australian woman Cassie Sainsbury may have destroyed her chance of a reduced sentence after making claims of death threats during a drama-filled sentence hearing in Colombia.
Ms Sainsbury looked set to face a six-year prison sentence for drug smuggling after a Bogota court accepted a plea deal she negotiated with prosecutors.
The 22-year-old South Australian was facing up to 30 years in prison, but negotiated a six-year term, reportedly in exchange for revealing the identities of others involved in the cocaine ring she was working with.
It appeared the court had accepted her reduced sentence, but then Ms Sainsbury infuriated prosecutors and the presiding judge when she told the court she only agreed to smuggle cocaine because the lives of her family had been threatened.
Judge Sergio Leon then suspended the hearing until August 9, as he examines the legality of the plea deal in the light of Ms Sainsbury’s claims.
Ms Sainsbury was caught at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport in April while attempting to smuggle 5.8 kilograms of cocaine inside 18 separate headphone packages.
The plea deal negotiated by Ms Sainsbury’s legal team was struck under article 56 of the Colombian Criminal Code dealing with defendants in “circumstances of marginality, ignorance and extreme poverty”.
That defence was brought into question by Ms Sainsbury’s claims.
“I have found a very complex development with this plea bargain,” Judge Leon said.
“That’s why it is wise to suspend this hearing, to study and resolve if it’s going to be legal or not, what is proposed.”
Ms Sainsbury told the court she “didn’t want to take any package anywhere” but did so under coercion.
“I was told that my family and partner would be killed,” she said.
Sainsbury then attempted to act within the spirit of the plea deal by admitting responsibility.
“I accepted the charges and agreed on the plea because the one thing I cannot take away is the fact that the drugs were in my suitcase,” she said.
“I take responsibility for that.”
After Ms Sainsbury made her claims of coercion, the prosecutor angrily responded that her testimony altered her defence.
“I am surprised at this because one thing appears in the documents and then the accused says something else,” the Adelaide Advertiser quoted the prosecutor as saying in Spanish.
“If she continues saying that she signed the pre-agreement knowing she was at threat, and she can prove this to the court, this must be done by the deed of defence.”
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) July 26, 2017
Ms Sainsbury’s lawyer, Orlando Herran, said there was no proof of the threat so he had agreed to the deal.
Mr Herran described Ms Sainsbury as being desperate from debts incurred at her failed gym business, and had traveled to Bogota on the understanding she was delivering paperwork.
He said she only realised she was carrying drugs at the last moment and when she refused to smuggle them, she was threatened.
Ms Sainsbury has been held in a Bogota prison since her arrest, with her case attracting huge attention in Australia.
Ms Sainsbury’s mother, Lisa Evans, and fiancé, Scott Broadbridge, were in Bogota to support the Adelaide woman during the sentencing hearing on Thursday morning (AEST).
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the case served as another warning to Australians travelling overseas.
“People need to abide by the laws of that country. If not, they will face serious consequences,” he told Seven on Thursday.
The government provided consular assistance to Ms Sainsbury, but did not fund her legal case, Mr Dutton said.
No prisoner transfer agreement with Colombia
International law expert Amy Maguire said if the judge accepted the plea deal it would be a good result for Sainsbury.
“I think given that the potential maximum sentence was 20 years or more, a plea deal that allows her to serve six years in prison does seem reasonable, especially considering the quantity of cocaine,” she told the ABC.
Dr Maguire said that whatever the length of the sentence, it would need to be served in Colombia as the South American country did not have a prison transfer agreement with Australia.
“The problem there is that although Australia has that type of arrangement available with over 60 other countries, Colombia isn’t one of them,” she said. “At the moment Australia isn’t in a position to try and negotiate a return for Cassie to serve her sentence in an Australia jail.”
Ms Sainsbury has been detained in El Buen Pastor women’s prison since her arrest.
– with agencies