A gruelling, bizarre and tragic trial
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.