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.