Harte trial puts media focus on Mauritius

Mon, May 21, 2012, 01:00

Sixteen months after newlywed Michaela Harte was strangled, a high-profile legal case is about to be heard

AT ITS doorstep are the sapphire waters and undulating tropical forests that make Mauritius a byword for sophisticated luxury, but the tiny fishing village of Grand Gaube has the tranquil, unassuming air of a place the world has passed by.

It’s a Sunday in the low season, so most of the shops are closed and locals are whiling away a lazy afternoon in the shade. Some fishermen cast lines into the shallow waters and, on the beach, a few dozen local Tamil Hindus are bathing in magnificent saffron robes before a traditional fire-walking ceremony.

From the beach, the fasting devotees proceed through the village to the temple, where they will cross a pit of burning embers barefoot. A few policemen look on, just in case.

But remote and isolated as it may feel, jutting into the Indian Ocean at the end of a winding country road, the people of Grand Gaube are all too aware of the international spotlight that will shine on the village once again this week.

Tomorrow, the trial will begin in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, of two men accused of murdering Michaela Harte, the daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte, while she was on honeymoon here with her husband John McAreavey.

The 27-year-old teacher from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, was found strangled in her hotel room in January last year, just two weeks after her wedding. She had left her husband at the poolside to return to their room to collect biscuits for a cup of tea. Her body was discovered a short time later in the bath.

Hotel room attendant Avinash Treebhoowon (30), from Plaine des Roches, and floor supervisor Sandip Moneea (42), from Petit Raffray, both deny the charges.

Sixteen months on, Mauritius is preparing for one of the most high-profile trials ever staged here. Irish journalists have descended on the island and local media have been extensively reporting every turn in a case that shocked the country and prompted the government into a public relations battle to protect the vital tourist industry. Talks were even held about making it the first trial to be broadcast on national television, but in the end no agreement was reached.

Mr McAreavey, who is due to give evidence as a prosecution witness, has travelled back to the island with members of his and the Harte family for the trial. The first secretary from the Irish Embassy in South Africa will also attend the hearings.

The visiting family members declined an offer of accommodation from the owners of the Legends Hotel, renamed and rebranded as the Lux since the killing, and have asked the media to respect their privacy.

Security was tight at the hotel yesterday, with each incoming car checked and logged as it passed through the gates. A large complex surrounded by lush gardens and dotted with palm trees, the hotel has its own powdery-white beach looking onto an azure lagoon. Yesterday, couples and families wandered about in the sun. A musician plucked a classical guitar; otherwise only the lapping waves intruded on the peace.

Back in Grand Gaube, they talk about January 2011 as if it were yesterday.

Rajiv Persand, who runs a grocery shop and has three rental cars available for tourists, says business collapsed after the tragedy. Some guests left the hotel straight away, and the village noticed fewer new arrivals.

“Everyone who works there was afraid after it happened. They were afraid of getting caught up in it,” he says.

“At the time of the crime, I was scared to give my cars to clients from the hotel, because I was afraid of going up there in case they said it was me.”

Grand Gaube has largely been spared the huge hotel developments found further west along the coast, and fishing remains its most important activity. But the two local resorts provide a much-needed boost to the village, and the old Legends hotel – built a few decades ago on the grounds of a cemetery which was moved across the road to make way – is a big local employer.

Deepak Bhujun, a young man who works at a local restaurant, remembers the day vividly. His brother was working on the front desk at Legends that day.

“I was at home when he phoned me,” Bhujun recalls. “He said, something has happened at the hotel.”

The trial, presided over by Judge Prithiviraj Fekna, will be heard before a jury of nine and is expected to last two weeks. Thirty witnesses are listed to give evidence.

Nowhere will it be watched more closely than in Grand Gaube.

“It had a big effect on the village, because here everyone lives like a family,” says Ragesh Ramrecha, a hardware shop owner.

“A newlywed couple coming for their honeymoon,” he says, pausing and shaking his head. “They were welcome here . . . It was as if it was someone from our own family had passed away. We see such things in films, but none of us thought something like that would happen at our hotel.”