The brother of the two Irish men who were sentenced to 11-year jail terms in a South American jail for drug smuggling, has spoken out over his torment.
Dermot, 20, and Leigh O’Neill, 24, from Athlone in County Westmeath were sentenced by a Venezuelan court last week for drugs offences. Leigh has pleaded guilty to the offences, while his younger brother Dermot continues to protest his innocence.
The Irishmen will now serve out their sentence at San Juan de Los Morros jail in the Venezuelan capital Caracas.
Venezuela is known for its overcrowded prisons which wage a constant battle with armed inmates. This past weekend, at least 25 people were killed during a prison riot and dozens were wounded when inmates opened fire inside at Yare I prison south of Caracas on Sunday.
According to the non-governmental Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (VPO), more than 50,000 inmates are housed in prisons built to hold 14,000. It is within such an overcrowded facility that the two Irishmen will serve out their sentences.
It began last March when the two brothers had been travelling with Irishman Martin ‘Butch’ Beirne in Venezuela.
Beirne, who had addresses in Sligo and Roscommon, died in a Caracas hotel after a cocaine filled condom burst in his stomach.
Police later arrested the pair at the offices of the Irish consulate in nearby Avenida de Mexico.
After police examined Leigh O’Neill they discovered he had “foreign objects” in his body. He later passed 92 balloons filled with 725 grams of cocaine.
But an x-ray of younger brother Dermot showed he had not swallowed any drugs.
Now, Daniel O’Neill, the middle brother of the accused men, insists that Dermot is innocent.
“Leigh admitted what he did. He was pleading guilty. He accepts his mistakes,’ he told the Irish Sun.
“Dermie was pleading innocent. He was asleep when the guy died.”
“My brother woke him up. It was all a shock to him — he thought they were there on a holiday.”
During the trial, Leigh told the court his brother had “no knowledge” that he and Beirne were working as drug mules in South America.
He claimed that deceased Beirne had “proposed the business” to smuggle cocaine.
State prosecutors later ruled that Demot was indirectly linked to the crime and the two men should receive “the highest penalty”.
Daniel explained: “He was given two options.”
“He was told if he pleaded not guilty he’d be sent back to San Juan for four years waiting for a trial — and he’d probably be found guilty and get 20 years. But if he pleaded guilty he’d get out on parole after three or four years. So he pleaded guilty.
“That’s not justice. I see it as a trap — it was some Mickey Mouse court.”
When Daniel got the news his brothers had been sentenced to 11-years, he said he had “just a lot of empty feelings”.
He added: “It’s terrible. The fact is that one of my brothers was there at the wrong time.”
Daniel expressed concern for Dermot’s 17-year-old girlfriend, who is due to give birth to their child next month.
“She’s in bits — she’ll have to give birth alone now.
“It’s all too much drama. I don’t know what to say to her. I’m just doing what I can.”
Leigh also has a child with his girlfriend, but has not remained in touch.
He explained that he and his brothers had a difficult upbringing and were raised by their grandmother who died last year.
“After that everything went all pear-shaped. We all took it very badly.”