Tense day in court as suspect spends nine hours in dock

Thu, Jun 28, 2012, 01:00

TENSION HAS been running high in courtroom number five for weeks, but it took the longest day for it finally to spill over.

After four hours of testimony from Avinash Treebhoowoon, the younger of the two accused men, Judge Prithviraj Fecknah suggested it might be time to adjourn for the day. Mehdi Manrakhan, the lead prosecution barrister, was instantly on his feet to object.

He had listened to the defendant give evidence to his own lawyer for two days, and now he wanted his chance at cross-examination. “We have never seen this before. It is unprecedented,” he protested.

“We have to be humane in our approach,” replied the judge. “This gentleman has been on his feet since 9.30am.”

“He can be given a chair,” Manrakhan fired back. That seemed to infuriate the judge. “You can be insolent with your friend. I am not your friend. I am the judge in this case.”

He demanded an apology from the barrister “for your tone and the way you address me . . . I will not take this form of insolence from the bar.” Manrakhan gave a grudging apology, and the court adjourned to let the temperature cool down.

But the day didn’t finish there. When we returned, Treebhoowoon had his chair. The judge would let proceedings run.

From the off, Manrakhan let fly a barrage of sharp, rapid-fire questions, probing for holes in the defendant’s evidence. He wanted to know about an incident in 2006, when Treebhoowoon was working at the Meridien Hotel. A sum of money was stolen from a couple staying there; Treebhoowoon was arrested and suspended for two weeks, but following an investigation, the witness said, he was cleared. He was even offered a promotion, but he turned it down and left the hotel a few months later.

Given that all the witnesses before Treebhoowoon had been called by the prosecution, Manrakhan had until yesterday been cast in the role of a sensitive conduit, a facilitator. Yesterday, when he took to his feet to cross-examine Treebhoowoon, he was blunt and aggressive.

He pointed out to Treebhoowoon that the times he filled in on a room report sheet from January 10th – the day Michaela McAreavey was killed – did not correspond with the times recorded on the electronic doors system. For each of the rooms Treebhoowoon was assigned to clean that day, the times were out by up to 10 minutes. Except one. “For room 1031, you may be very surprised when I show you the times,” he said. Both read 11.26am.

Treebhoowoon said he couldn’t explain. When the judge pressed him, he went silent for 15 seconds before repeating his answer.

“You lied in your room report sheet,” Manrakhan declared.

“Reply to what counsel is saying to you,” said the judge. “He is saying you lied.”

“No, I didn’t lie,” came the reply.

It was a gruelling day for Treebhoowoon. When he started to cry earlier in the day, he was given a ticking-off from the bench. “You are a man,” said the judge. “You should be able to control your emotions. Make an effort.” The hours passed. It was dark outside, and the public gallery was thinning out. Manrakhan went on.

He wanted to know more about the relationship between Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea, his supervisor and co-accused. The witness had earlier told the court they were colleagues, but not friends. But why do you always refer to him as Sandip, where people you claim are friends are referred to by their full names? In his testimony, Treebhoowoon said there was a Do Not Disturb sign on the McAreaveys’ room when he went to clean it. When he went to Moneea to ask for advice, he said, the supervisor phoned room 1025 and, receiving no response, told Treebhoowoon to go and clean it.

Manrakhan seized on this. This was against the hotel’s procedures, he said. “The procedures don’t say, ‘when you see a Do Not Disturb sign, go to your supervisor to ask can you enter the room’. Are you covering up for him?” Manrakhan asked.

“No, I’m not.” By now the court had been sitting for almost nine hours. Treebhoowoon was complaining of back pain, but this time Manrakhan was overruled and the court rose.