Police inquiry was 'crux' of the defence case


INVESTIGATION:WHEN THE Mauritian authorities sift through the embers of the long legal saga that came to an end yesterday, questions are bound to be asked about the police investigation.

Of all the aspects of the case, none was more closely scrutinised in court than this. It was, said defence barrister Sanjeev Teeluckdharry in his closing speech to the jury, the “crux” of his case.

He portrayed the accused men as innocent victims of a “wild hunt for scapegoats” by a police force under pressure to solve one of the most high-profile murders Mauritius had seen. If he succeeded in discrediting the investigation and casting doubt on the testimony of senior officers, then one of the prosecution’s strongest cards – the confession his client, Avinash Treebhoowoon, said he was beaten into signing – would be cast in a new light.

“Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr Teeluckdharry told jurors, “there is no pride in tacking the skins of innocents on the wall.”

Weeks of the trial were spent delving into the evidence of policemen of all ranks, from junior technicians all the way up to an assistant commissioner.

Police technicians and officers from crime scene units were cross-examined for hours and days. It made for uncomfortable viewing at times.

Under aggressive questioning from Mr Teeluckdharry, a young police photographer, Harris Jeewooth, was berated for taking only black-and-white photos at the scene. He had worked in the crime scene unit for just three months, and this was his first murder case.

And so it went on.

A draughtsman had to withdraw a map he presented in court after admitting it was given to him by the hotel. Another officer said he did not wear anti-contamination footwear when he entered the crime scene.

The exchanges grew more heated as we moved up the chain to the major crime investigation team (MCIT), the small, elite unit that led the inquiry.

One officer, Hans Rouwin Seevathian, thought he was on the stand simply to explain that he brought exhibits from one place to another after the killing. But Mr Teeluckdharry fired questions at him for hours. An uneasy, drawn-out standoff ensued, each question from Teeluckdharry batted away with “I can’t remember” or “I can’t recall”. The policeman, his arms folded against his thick-set frame, must have used these phrases 20 times, earning him a stern rebuke from Judge Prithviraj Fecknah.

Mr Teeluckdharry and his counterpart Rama Valayden, representing co-accused Sandip Moneea, returned time and again to perceived failings by police.

The MCIT failed to take statements from a number of guests in the deluxe block where the McAreaveys were staying, including a German couple who said they had information to pass on. They failed to monitor comings and goings from the hotel on the day of the killing, to interview key staff members or to inquire into “premature departures”.

While no DNA traces of the accused were found in the room, a potential match to another former staff member, Dassen Naraynen, was discovered in the bathroom. The defence lawyers both claimed his potential involvement had not been fully investigated by police.

In his closing speech, chief prosecuting barrister Mehdi Manrakhan argued that the defence was using alleged police failings as a smokescreen and urged the jury that these issues had “no particular bearing” on the matter.

“You are not here to say that the police have conducted their inquiry in this way and it would have been better to do it in another way,” Mr Manrakhan said. “That is no particular concern of yours.”

Judge Fecknah made similar remarks in his summing-up to the jurors yesterday, telling them they should “resist the temptation” to allow this to become a trial against the police. “You are not here to send a message to the commissioner of police,” he said.

Over four days on the stand, Mr Treebhoowoon gave detailed accounts of beatings and torture he alleged he suffered at the hands of MCIT officers. He said they plunged his head into a bucket of water, whipped his heels with cables and tortured him so badly that he vomited blood.

Mr Treebhoowoon claimed that, in his and his lawyer’s presence, the confession was dictated by one police officer to another before he was made to sign it.

The prosecution insisted Mr Treebhoowoon’s allegations were made up, highlighting that no external injuries were identified by three medics who examined him. But the defence persisted. “The MCIT could put any person in that box and say, ‘you have killed President John Kennedy’,” Valayden said.

The barrister said the police’s repeated claim of being “satisfied” – in the face of evidence that he said cast doubt on the guilt of the accused – had jeopardised Mauritius’s standing abroad.

“They [the police] are playing with the reputation of our country,” he said. “Playing with the tourist industry and jobs of thousands of people and they are ‘satisfied’ that things have been done?”

In the absence of medical evidence to support’s Treebhoowoon’s claims of brutality, it was his word against that of the police.

Manrakhan told the jury it was clear Mr Treebhoowoon “had come before you and regurgitated a concocted and rehearsed story”.

He said Mr Treebhoowoon’s appearance on the stand last week was the first time in 18 months he had given details of the alleged beatings and torture. The only reasonable inference that could be drawn was that he was “never really serious about his allegations and there was, in fact, never any complaint to make”.