A gruelling, bizarre and tragic trial
IT WAS, SAID the chief prosecuting barrister, Mehdi Manrakhan, the most taxing and challenging trial of his career. The sort of case, the defence lawyer Rama Valayden remarked, that left you lying awake at night grappling with the puzzle. Even the judge regularly spoke of how gruelling an experience it had been. If the drawn, weary faces that filled the court as we awaited the verdict on Thursday were any indication, nobody who followed the trial would disagree.
In a sense there were two trials. The first was the legal confrontation in courtroom 5, listed on the cork board at the door as “The State of Mauritius vs Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea” – the two men accused of murdering Michaela McAreavey. It was sombre and slow, not without drama, but overlaid with the grief of bereaved families and anchored in the detached, orderly codes of courtrooms everywhere.
Then there was another trial, “the biggest in Mauritian legal history”, a public spectacle that drew such big crowds to the ramshackle court building in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, that police had to erect crash barriers to maintain order. Their efforts were usually in vain. More than 150 people would jostle into the airless, humid courtroom every morning, among them students, off-duty policemen and as many Irish journalists as would cover a high-profile criminal trial in Dublin.
Day after day the story led bulletins in Mauritius and frequently in Ireland, every turn texted, tweeted, posted and aired, almost in real time. Judge Prithviraj Fecknah kept control in court, but outside it grew surreal, even troubling. During adjournments the barristers, some of them revelling in the attention, would stop for doorstep interviews on the state of play, like footballers sweeping through the mixed zone.
Everywhere you went in Mauritius you met an amateur sleuth, an armchair advocate. “Did you hear . . ? What about . . ? If you ask me . . .” The nadir was probably the viewer poll broadcast by a Mauritian TV station on the eve of the trial. It asked: “Do you think the two accused men are guilty or not?”
All the white noise outside the court seemed to heighten the oppressive atmosphere inside. The awkward intimacy of the small room didn’t help, and the longer the trial ran – originally scheduled for two weeks, it lasted for eight – the worse it became. Everyone – families, jurors, defendants and barristers – looked shattered this week. I saw journalists and policemen cry while listening to witness testimony, no more so than when John McAreavey stood in the witness box and recalled the events of January 10th last year. On other occasions the judge had to adjourn simply to let tempers cool.
If onlookers found it draining, it was hard to imagine how unspeakable an ordeal it must have been for the families. For the past two months members of the McAreavey and Harte families sat in court nearly every day. They listened from the front row as Michaela’s last days were retraced and as defence lawyers pored over her private life in painful detail. A few rows behind them were the defendants’ families, among them Avinash Treebhoowoon’s 23-year-old wife, Reshma, and Sandip Moneea’s wife, Reka, whom he married just 37 days before his arrest.
The trial exerted a strong hold on people. Perhaps it was the way the case turned on a grotesque juxtaposition of the mundane and the tragic: a young, radiant newly-wed who went to fetch a KitKat for a cup of tea and ended up strangled in the bath. There was also something cruelly incongruous about the fact of the trial itself. It broke the tacit separation, one that sustains the tourist industry in many developing countries, between the “paradise island” sold to foreigners and the rather less paradisiacal country that lies beyond the compound gates.
The lines between these two worlds are more porous in Mauritius than in many tropical destinations; tourists often venture outside their hotels, and the country is welcoming and relatively safe. Yet you could scarcely find two more contrasting images of modern Mauritius than the manicured laws and azure lagoon at Legends Hotel and the gritty streets of Port Louis, 40 minutes away. When John McAreavey was describing his and Michaela’s relaxed summer’s morning in January last year, the rains that signalled the arrival of the Mauritian winter were hammering against the courtroom roof.
THERE WAS NO MISTAKING, either, that for the island more was riding on this than the fate of the two defendants. Tourist numbers from Ireland fell last year (visitor figures from other important markets rose in the same period), and the authorities were keenly sensitive to the impact of any bad publicity from the trial on the country’s image. In his closing speech, Rama Valayden, the former attorney general who represented Moneea, recalled the Great Famine, extolled the “struggle against British colonialism” and the Irish love of poetry, and stressed his “support for Sinn Féin”.
In his summing up Judge Prithviraj Fecknah urged jurors to ignore claims by defence lawyers that their decision would have ramifications for the reputation of Mauritius. “You are not politicians, and you cannot allow yourselves be swayed by political considerations,” he said.
Valayden said the trial kept him awake at night. For everyone who spent the past two months in court, including the press, it became an all-consuming and trying experience. After eight weeks of the same 12-hour routine, the evidence became imprinted on your mind. In free time I would often drive to the sites mentioned in testimony, mainly to better grasp the more technical exchanges in court. I retraced witnesses’ steps, visited police stations and other points of interest, studied maps and statements and spoke to many of the protagonists.
One day I was timing a walk between two points at the Lux Hotel (formerly Legends) complex – a surprisingly simple way to discount one theory put forward in court, it turned out – when a staff member spotted what I was doing. “You’re not the first person I’ve seen do that,” he said with a rueful smile.
It was intense and it was strange. One of the more peculiar aspects of the trial was that proceedings took place mainly in a language (English) that most witnesses plainly did not master. The country’s lingua franca is French-based Mauritian Creole, and generally people are more comfortable in French than in English, but only a handful of witnesses, including the two accused men, used Creole in the witness box. While most misunderstandings were easily overcome, from time to time tenses got mixed up during detailed technical exchanges or questions elicited blank stares.
Then there was the reportage itself. In Ireland the rules of court reporting are clearly codified and carefully observed. As a general rule, so as not to prejudice proceedings and find themselves in contempt of court, media report only what the jury sees and hears. But in Mauritius, where the law on jury trials is essentially the same, it was a free-for-all. The local press would carry long interviews with the barristers, asking them not only about the trial but also about their favourite films or their girlfriends. Sensitive legal argument heard in the absence of the jury would appear on the front pages the following day.
THE PROBLEM WAS bound to spill into the courtroom, and in the fifth week it finally did. That was when the Mauritian website lexpress.mupublished CCTV footage from Legends Hotel a day before it had even been mentioned in court. The defence planned to argue that the film showed John and Michaela McAreavey at the hotel reception desk after the time at which the prosecution said she died. L’Express labelled the video as showing the McAreavey couple, and alongside it ran a story that described the recording as a major revelation.
When the video was shown in court the next day a senior detective said the couple in the video had been identified as German tourists. The defence said it would not pursue the matter and moved on. On foot of a prosecution complaint about the L’Express report, Judge Fecknah found that the website’s story was highly prejudicial, but he decided not to find the publication in contempt and settled for a severe warning.
When the jury returned on Thursday evening and acquitted the two defendants, the scene that developed was as extraordinary as anything that had preceded it. The McAreavey and Harte families walked out of court almost immediately, as wild cheering erupted from the friends and families of the two men. In the courtyard the defendants’ supporters celebrated in a thick melee. Lawyers were held aloft, fireworks were set off and chants of “justice, justice” rang out.
And yet within half an hour the clamour had petered out and the crowd had dispersed. It was as if those eight weeks had finally caught up with everyone. Night had fallen. A policeman ushered the last of the onlookers out and slammed the gates shut one last time.