Defence team in Mauritius trial questions police conduct

Fri, May 25, 2012, 01:00

JUNIOR DEFENCE lawyer Ravi Ratnah had been firing questions at the police draughtsman for almost two hours when Judge Prithviraj Fecknah finally lost patience. “With due respect, I will have to stop you,” the judge said. “This is a bit tedious, and we’re not quite seeing the relevance of it.”

The exasperation from the bench was due to Ratnah’s relentless probing over the finest detail in the evidence of the draughtsman, Rajen Hurobin. He was the technical officer who drew up maps of the crime scene and its surroundings at Legends Hotel, where Michaela McAreavey was killed.

What precisely was the distance between the bath and the body? How far was it between the door and the beach, or between the same door and the restaurant table where John and Michaela McAreavey had lunch shortly before she returned to the room to collect biscuits? So it went.

But Ratnah wanted to know about more than maps. For each of Hurobin’s visits to the scene, the defence wanted to know who he met, who he saw, what they wore and what they said. Many of the questions had already been answered by earlier witnesses, and the judge couldn’t see where it was all going. “Keep. It. Relevant,” he said. “This risks getting out of hand.”

Time-keeping has become one of the judge’s recurring preoccupations. The court had hoped to have heard evidence from 15 witnesses as of last night, but so far only five have appeared. The defence has put each one – all police officers from technical units – under long, drawn-out questioning.

The common thread in the defence’s approach has been close scrutiny of police procedures. The court heard one of the accused, Avinash Treebhoowoon, was not wearing an anti-contamination suit when he was brought into room 1025 three days after the killing. Neither were officers attending a reconstruction wearing protective shoes, recalled police photographer Harris Jeewooth. He also said that, during a visit to the room on January 13th, three days after the killing, there was no sentry at the door, and that photos showed part of the bathtub had been taken away a few days after the killing.

Some of the day’s most dramatic evidence came from Treebhoowoon himself – or at least from the statement he gave Mapou district court at a preliminary hearing last year.

Treebhoowoon alleged he was beaten by police while in custody. He said officers tried to suffocate him with a towel, hit him in the face and on the heels, and held his head in a bucket of water. “I was on a chair, I was gripped by the neck and placed in that pail of water,” his lawyer said, reading from the statement.

The compact, crowded courtroom is lending an awkward intimacy to the trial. When the accused are led from court at lunchtime each day they are pushed through the packed public gallery. First comes 42-year-old Sandeep Moneea, a stocky man with greying hair who, despite handcuffs, clenches his family members’ hands as he passes. He is followed by Treebhoowoon, 12 years his junior – a small, rake-thin man whose shirt looks a size too big and whose fresh face is taut and wary. He nods at his family as he passes. Yesterday, they walked within two feet of John McAreavey’s sister Claire and his brother-in-law Mark Harte who, like everyone else, looked on in silence as the police ushered them out. This is about as close as the accused get to one another; in court, they sit as far apart as their bench allows.

There was a strange atmosphere in court yesterday. Several times, usually when the aggressive young defence junior Ravi Ratnah – with the theatrical manner of a lead in a TV courtroom drama – was putting a witness under pressure, groups of young law students in the public gallery broke into laughter or pantomime oohs and aaahs. The judge let it pass each time.

On one occasion, Michaela’s brother Mark shook his head at the laughter a few rows back. Beside him, Claire McAreavey stared sternly ahead.