Strange and jarring moments in ramshackle setting


ANALYSIS:The legal process was adhered to despite near collapse, a media frenzy and public outbursts, writes RUADHAN MAC CORMAIC

THE SETTING may have been a little ramshackle and the protagonists had their eccentricities, but the trial itself was run in a way that would be broadly familiar to anyone with experience of the Irish courts.

The Mauritian legal system is a hybrid of arrangements inherited from the country’s two former colonisers, the British and the French, but criminal trials are run in accordance with common law practices. That means court procedures and key concepts in the trial were virtually identical to those that one would encounter in Ireland.

Overseeing his first major trial, Judge Prithviraj Fecknah gave every impression of trying to be fair to both sides.

He found himself at the centre of one of the most high-profile cases since Mauritian independence, a fact that didn’t escape his attention.

He urged jurors to ignore the “enormous” media attention the trial had attracted and instructed them in his summing-up yesterday to ignore claims by the two defence lawyers about the possible ramifications of their decision on the reputation of Mauritius.

“I have to remind you this is not your role and you are not to allow yourselves be influenced by such considerations,” the judge said.

“You are not politicians and you cannot allow yourselves be swayed by political considerations.”

The judge clashed with barristers from both sides during the trial. On one occasion, he berated chief prosecuting counsel Mehdi Manrakhan sharply when he felt the barrister had over- stepped the mark with an insolent reply.

In the seventh week, the trial was briefly at risk of collapse when Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, representing Avinash Treebhoowoon, claimed Judge Fecknah had poisoned the jurors’ minds with unfair interventions from the bench.

Teeluckdharry took issue with a series of questions the judge had put to his client during his cross- examination by the prosecution.

In the absence of the jury, he put forward a motion suggesting two courses of actions: that all judicial interventions during Mr Treebhoowoon’s evidence be struck from the record or that the jury be dismissed outright.

Almost four hours later and after a long meeting between the lawyers and Judge Fecknah in his chambers, a compromise was reached.

The judge said he was well aware of the legal principles governing the adversarial trial system and that a judge should be an independent arbitrator as “matters are thrashed out between counsel”.

However he added that there were exceptions when a judge was permitted to intervene.

“The judge is allowed to put a few questions to witnesses to clarify matters,” he said. “Judicial interventions in this matter have been done in that spirit.”

Nevertheless, a few days later, the judge addressed the jury and told them that a “technical issue” meant they should “purely and simply disregard and ignore” the questions he put to Mr Treebhoowoon and the answers they elicited.

Since the trial began on May 22nd, the six men and three women of the jury were separated from their families and sequestered in a hotel. Accompanied by court staff at all times, they were not allowed to access media and their movements were closely monitored.

That may explain one striking feature of the trial – leniency towards the flouting of rules on court reporting.

In Ireland, the rules of court reporting are clearly codified and carefully observed. As a general rule, so as not to prejudice proceedings and find themselves in contempt of court, media report only on what the jury sees and hears. In Mauritius though, where the law on jury trials is essentially the same, it was a free-for-all.

The local press would carry long interviews with the barristers, asking them not only about the trial but about their favourite films or their girlfriends. Sensitive legal argument heard in the absence of the jury would appear on the front pages the following day.

Many Irish media took risks they would never take at home. Adherence to legal principles there may have been, but that is not to say that there were not some strange and jarring moments in court.

Early on, the public gallery would break out in laughter when a witness stumbled in evidence, and the barristers in the first two rows occasionally guffawed when a witness was on the stand. The judge generally let such things pass, although the police grew strict about such outbursts as the trial progressed.

One of the more peculiar aspects of the trial was that proceedings took place mainly in a language (English) that most witnesses plainly did not master. The country’s lingua franca is French-based Mauritian Creole.

Children learn English and French from an early age and both are commonly used in daily life across the island.

The biggest newspapers and other media, for example, are in French, but the courts system operates mainly through English. The two accused men gave evidence in Creole, but they were the exceptions.

Witnesses would often need help with phrases used by a barrister and, while most misunderstandings were easily overcome, from time to time tenses got mixed up during detailed technical exchanges or questions elicited blank stares.