The small courtroom creates an awkward intimacy

Sat, May 26, 2012, 01:00

The trial of two men for the murder of Michaela McAreavey is proceeding slowly, with occasional heated moments, such as yesterday’s attempt to examine the victim’s private life

THE COLONIAL-ERA COURTS building in the heart of Port Louis is just half-an-hour’s drive from the Lux Hotel, on the island’s north-east coast, but you could scarcely find two more divergent versions of modern Mauritius. Port Louis, the bustling capital, is a crowded, gritty, traffic-choked commercial hub.

Just 30 km away is Grand Gaube, the tiny fishing village adjacent to the Lux Hotel, formerly Legends, where Michaela McAreavey was murdered. Occupying a wide patch of coastal land looking onto a still azure lagoon, the hotel is surrounded by lush, immaculate gardens and the grounds dotted with palm trees.

The lines between these two worlds are more porous in Mauritius than in many tropical islands. Tourists who stay at the resorts are free to travel around the country, and very often do. The island is relatively safe, it has other industries, the people are welcoming, and the country takes great pride in its appeal to outsiders.

Yet the juxtaposition between the idyllic haven and the stuffy urban courtroom has heightened the sense of sad incongruity in the opening days of the trial of two men accused of murdering Michaela McAreavey. As prosecution counsel Mehdi Manrakhan recalled how the couple – she a vibrant, beautiful 27-year-old teacher and only daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte and his wife Marian; he a talented 26-year-old footballer from Co Down – had chosen “our paradise island” for some of “the best days of their married life”, the view outside the courtroom was of cloud and rain, signalling the arrival of the Mauritian winter.

The barrister described the relaxed, carefree day Michaela and John had on January 10th 2011 – just their third day in Mauritius. They had breakfast together at Legends Hotel. John went for a golf lesson, Michaela stayed at the swimming pool, and they met up again for lunch at the poolside restaurant. After their meal, Michaela ordered tea and went to their room to get some biscuits. “John stayed behind and waited . . . and waited, for her to come back,” prosecution counsel said.

Sixteen months later, John McAreavey is back in Mauritius for the trial of the two hotel workers accused of murdering his wife. As a witness listed to appear for the prosecution, he was in court only briefly this week, but family members have attended each day, listening intently as proceedings unfold.

On Wednesday they heard the prosecution outline its case to the six men and three women of the jury. It claims that when Michaela McAreavey returned to her room to collect biscuits for a cup of tea, she caught the accused stealing from her room.

One of the accused, 30-year-old Avinash Treebhoowoon, initially confessed to having been involved in the killing before retracting the confession and alleging he was beaten and tortured while in police custody. The second accused man, 42-year-old Sandip Moneea, has always denied any involvement.

A key witness for the prosecution will be Raj Theekoy, another hotel employee, who says he heard a woman screaming “as if in pain” in room 1025, where the McAreaveys were staying, and then saw the two accused leave the room. He alleges that Moneea threatened to implicate him in the case if he opened his mouth.

PROGRESS WAS SLOWin courtroom number five this week. Four days into the trial, the jury has mostly heard from police officers attached to scene-of-crime investigation units and other technical divisions. More than 40 witnesses, including John McAreavey, have still to give evidence, so there is no chance the trial will finish within the original two-week schedule.

The defence lawyers’ questioning of each witness was long and drawn-out. They are putting police procedures under very close scrutiny. During cross-examination of a police photographer, Harris Jeewooth, the court heard that a picture taken in room 1025 on January 10th – the day of the killing – showed a packet of biscuits in an open drawer. A photo taken two days later showed it on the chest of drawers.

The relentless, often theatrical probing of police technicians, notably by junior defence counsel Ravi Ratnah — a fan of TV courtroom dramas, to judge by his exaggerated mannerisms — has begun to exasperate Judge Prithviraj Fecknah, who on Thursday admonished the defence for repeating itself and asking irrelevant questions. “This risks getting out of hand,” he said.

In court yesterday, a heated dispute broke out between lawyers when defence counsel attempted to delve into the private lives of Michaela McAreavey and her husband.

Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, representing Treebhoowon, repeatedly pressed a police officer about items found in the room where the couple were staying. The items, the lawyer said, included a laptop, two iPhones, a sex guide book and other belongings of a personal nature.

Under questioning from Teeluckdharry, the officer said he had not looked through the book. The defence twice pressed him about what may have been in it. Prosecution lawyer Mehdi Manrakhan objected strongly, pointing out that the witness had said he had not looked through the book. The judge upheld his objections.

The small courtroom creates an awkward intimacy, but by now everyone has their allotted place. Behind the prosecution team sit John McAreavey’s sister Claire and brother-in-law Mark Harte, accompanied by a diplomat from the Irish embassy in South Africa and flanked by two PSNI officers.

Behind them are about two dozen law students, many of whom break into inappropriate laughter or pantomime oohs and aaahs when a witness is being put under pressure. The families of the accused men are lined up farther back, along with journalists.

And then, to the left, there are the accused themselves: 42-year-old Moneea, a stocky man with greying hair who holds the same neutral expression every day, and Treebhoowon, 12 years his junior – a small, rake-thin man whose shirts looks a size too big and whose fresh face is taut and wary. The two men sit as far apart as their bench allows, and never so much as make eye contact.