Two hotel workers cleared of Michaela McAreavey murder
THE FOREMAN of the jury gave a solemn nod. They had reached a verdict. Suddenly, it felt as if the air had been sucked out of the crammed, humid courtroom. Two hundred people fell silent.
The McAreavey and Harte families sat in the front row, the accreted strains and stresses of the eight-week trial inscribed on their faces, and locked their gaze on the jury box.
“Not guilty,” declared the foreman.
And then a second time: “Not guilty.”
John McAreavey shook his head and stared at the floor. Beside him, his sister Claire shut her eyes. All around them, there was pandemonium.
After one of the longest and most closely scrutinised criminal trials to take place in Mauritius, hotel workers Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea were acquitted, unanimously, of murdering Michaela McAreavey, the 27-year-old teacher from Co Tyrone, during her honeymoon in January 2011 with her husband, John. It took the jury of six men and three women two hours to reach its decision.
As Judge Prithviraj Fecknah told the two men they were now free, John McAreavey – accompanied by Claire, his father Brendan and brother-in-law Mark Harte – were already making for the door.
Under Mauritian law, Mr Treebhoowoon and Mr Moneea cannot be retried for the offence of murder, but police said they would reopen the inquiry if instructed by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“If there is any need to reopen a further inquiry, the police would do that,” said Insp Ranjit Singh Jokhoo, one of the lead detectives on the investigation.
The prosecution had claimed the two former employees of Legends Hotel murdered Ms McAreavey, the daughter of Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte, after she returned to her room to collect biscuits, and found them stealing.
Mr Treebhoowoon (32) from Plaine de Roches, worked as a room attendant at Legends, while Mr Moneea (43) from Petit Raffray was his floor supervisor. They were arrested at the hotel the day after the murder.
A brief statement issued on behalf of the McAreavey and Harte families said there were “no words which can describe the sense of devastation and desolation” they felt after the verdict.
As darkness fell on the old colonial-era courthouse in the heart of Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, fireworks were let off and chants of “justice, justice” rang out.
In a chaotic melee outside court, Mr Treebhoowoon embraced his crying wife Reshma. “My wife and I are very happy,” he said. “I am so sad about the lady, but I did not do this. I did not kill this lady. I am sure by god.”
“I feel great,” said Mr Moneea, minutes after he had been formally released after 18 months in detention. “Justice has won.”
Carried aloft by supporters, defence barristers Sanjeev Teeluckdharry and Rama Valayden attacked the police team that led the McAreavey inquiry and demanded a new investigation into the crime.
The defence had insisted the confession statement signed by Mr Treebhoowoon three days after the crime was a fabrication that had been extracted by police brutality. The room cleaner claimed he had been beaten repeatedly, whipped on the soles of his feet, and had his head plunged into water so many times he vomited blood.
“This is what happens when we rush to find justice, like it was in the Birmingham Six, like it was in the Guilford Four,” Mr Valayden said.
He claimed the Mauritian police’s major crime investigation team (MCIT) had ignored vital evidence that would have identified the real killer in their haste to find someone to blame quickly. The lawyer demanded the MCIT be disbanded and a new unit take on a fresh investigation.
As he had done during the trial, Mr Valayden highlighted that four fingerprints belonging neither to the two accused nor the McAreaveys were found in the room where the Irish woman was strangled. He also noted that unknown DNA traces had been recovered on her body.
“My message to the McAreavey family is, ‘don’t despair’. I can promise to you and to the Irish nation that I, Rama Valayden, with my friend Sanjeev [Teeluckdharry], we will continue our efforts to find the real guilty persons.”
The trial, originally scheduled for nine days, ran for eight weeks and heard from 41 witnesses. Alluding to earlier claims by lawyers that the jury’s decision could have an impact on the reputation of the Indian Ocean island, Judge Fecknah urged jurors not to be influenced by the huge public attention the case had attracted.
“You are not politicians and you cannot allow yourselves be swayed by political considerations,” he said.
Asked for his reaction to the verdict, Insp Jokhoo said: “If we live in a country where the rule of law prevails, we must accept when the [courts] gives a verdict.”