Trial of hotel workers accused of murdering Michaela McAreavey begins in Mauritius

Tue, May 22, 2012, 01:00

Trial is set to be one of the most high-profile in the history of Mauritius, which relies on tourism, writes RUADHAN Mac CORMAICin Port Louis

LARGE CROWDS and a heavy police presence are expected at the criminal court of Mauritius this morning as the trial begins of two hotel workers accused of murdering Michaela McAreavey, the daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte.

The 27-year-old teacher from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, was found strangled in her hotel room while on honeymoon on the Indian Ocean island in January last year, weeks after marrying Co Down footballer John McAreavey.

She had left her husband at the poolside to return to their room to fetch biscuits for a cup of tea. Her body was discovered a short time later in the bath.

At pre-trial hearings last year, the prosecution said it believed Mrs McAreavey unwittingly stumbled upon a burglary in the room and was attacked by the thieves. Hotel room attendant Avinash Treebhoowoon (30), from Plaine des Roches, and floor supervisor Sandip Moneea (42), from Petit Raffray, both deny the charges against them.

John McAreavey, who is due to give evidence as a prosecution witness, has returned to the island with his father Brendan, sister Claire and brother-in-law Mark Harte. Local media reported that the family have been offered police protection during their stay on the island.

The first secretary from the Irish Embassy in South Africa will also attend the hearings, which will be held in courtroom number five of the Criminal Court, housed in a colonial-era building in the heart of Port Louis, the bustling Mauritian capital.

With huge domestic and Irish media interest, the trial will be one of the most high-profile in the history of independent Mauritius, which relies on tourism for a large share of its revenues.

The killing prompted the government to mount a major public relations effort last year, and the Legends Hotel, where Michaela McAreavey died, has since changed its name.

Security has been tight at the hotel in recent days, with cars checked and logged as they pass through the gates. The resort, a large complex surrounded by lush gardens and dotted with palm trees, faces a quiet, azure lagoon at one of the island’s most northerly tips.

Judge Prithviraj Fecknah will preside over the trial, which will begin with the selection of nine jury members.

Thirty witnesses are listed to give evidence and the trial is expected to last two weeks.

The McAreavey investigation has put the Mauritian criminal justice system under an intense local and international spotlight.

Despite this, chief justice Bernard Sik Yuen said the trial would proceed “like any other at the criminal court”.

“No special security measures have been taken. It will be a trial like any other,” he told the Port Louis-based Radio Plus yesterday. The hearings will take place in English and French, although witnesses have the right to address the court in Mauritian Creole, the country’s French-influenced lingua franca.

Discussions had been held on making the trial the first to be broadcast live on national television, but ended without agreement being reached between lawyers involved and the Mauritian courts authority.

Among the prosecution witnesses will be Raj Theekoy, a hotel cleaner who described hearing a woman “shouting in pain” moments before the body was found.

Mr Theekoy was granted immunity from prosecution following his decision to give evidence.

The witness list includes a number of police officers belonging to local and national units, scene-of-crime investigators and forensic scientists.

Hotel staff, among them the director, the chief of security, a restaurant supervisor, a porter and two room attendants will also give evidence.

The accused face up to 60 years in prison if found guilty.

SHORT HONEYMOON JUST TWO WEEKS MARRIED

MICHAELA McAREAVEY was married just two weeks when she was killed in a hotel in Mauritius in January last year. The vibrant 27-year-old teacher, the only daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte and his wife Marian, was a devout Catholic with a love of the Irish language. A one-time Rose of Tralee contestant, her public profile grew with television appearances and her constant presence at her father’s side at big county games.

On January 10th, 2011, Michaela was on honeymoon with her husband, Down footballer John McAreavey, at the Legends Hotel in Grand Gaube, a fishing village in the north of Mauritius. She left John at the poolside to return to their room to collect biscuits for a cup of tea and, when she did not return, John went to look for her. He discovered her body in the bath.

Mauritian police arrested five people in the days and weeks after the killing. Two of the men appeared in court last June for a preliminary inquiry in which the evidence against them was heard and assessed by a judge. Mauritian prosecutors then took several months to consider the case before confirming they would bring charges of murder against the two men.

Both men deny the charges.

When Michaela’s funeral was held at St Malachy’s Church in Ballymacilroy, Co Tyrone – where she had married John three weeks earlier – the large crowd of mourners included then president Mary McAleese and leading figures from the worlds of politics and sport in Ireland.

In an RTÉ documentary aired last summer, John McAreavey said he had proposed in Paris, and the couple waited two years to get married. “I wish we had gotten married sooner,” he said.