Wednesday 18 October 2017

Family in distress as defence lawyers play to the gallery

Mayessen Nagapa-Chetty in Port Louis

As a witness in the case, John McAreavey has been forced to stay away from court since the trial started last Wednesday as others told how he fought to revive his young wife on finding her body in the bath of their luxury hotel room on the Indian Ocean island.

Accompanied by his father Brendan, the widower is understood to have spent the time in thought and prayer as the guest of Mauritius' Catholic bishop Maurice Piat. The bishop is believed to have arranged somewhere private for them to stay at the behest of Mr McAreavey's uncle, Bishop John McAreavey.

Meanwhile, his sister Claire and brother-in-law Mark Harte have endured raucous scenes in court as the flamboyant defence team hinted that they would be raising questions about a sex guide found in the couple's hotel bedroom.

During evidence from the prosecution's star witness, hotel employee Raj Theekoy, they heard how Michaela, a teacher from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, cried out in pain and fear moments before she was strangled.

Mr Theekoy claimed he was outside the couple's room and saw murder accused Avinash Treebhoowoon, 30, and Sandip Moneea, 42, then also employees at the Legends Hotel, just moments after hearing the cries. They both deny their involvement.

Mr McAreavey had been due to start giving evidence tomorrow about how he waited for his wife for 12 minutes after she left the restaurant where they were having tea to get some biscuits from their room. He settled the bill and went after her when she did not return.

Unable to get into the room without the electronic key card she had taken, he went in search of a bellboy who, together with him, discovered 27-year-old Michaela, the daughter of Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte, strangled and lifeless in the bath.

Prosecutors are keen to leave Mr McAreavey's evidence until late in their case, thereby maximising its impact on the six men and three women who make up the jury.

By the week's end, they hoped to have concluded the evidence of 15 of the estimated 30 witnesses summoned by the prosecution and defence. But two days into the hearings, only six witnesses had been interviewed amid painstaking cross-examination by the defence and constant adjournments, and the atmosphere in the courtroom was souring.

As the defence probed a police map maker for the exact dimensions of the couple's hotel room, Judge Prithviraj Fecknah lost patience and urged counsel to cut out "tedious questions".

On Friday, the tension boiled over into furious arguments as the defence sought to probe sensitive details about personal items belonging to the honeymooners.

A police officer told jurors that a book entitled The Ultimate Sex Guide, lubricant and contraceptives were recovered from the room and handed back to Mr McAreavey, along with a laptop and two iPhones.

Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, Mr Treebhoowoon's lawyer, asked the officer if the book contained reference to the term "BDSM" -- an acronym for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism -- a form of violent love making.

Chief prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan slammed his files on the desk, and sprang to his feet, appealing to the judge to stop the line of questioning.

Mr Teeluckdharry responded: "This is the crux of the defence's case."

Whatever the motivation for referring to it, the evidence was clearly distressing for the family. Mr Harte hunched forward and buried his face in his hands while Claire McAreavey comforted him with tears in her eyes.

It was not the first time they had been visibly upset by court proceedings. During the week, they were seen flinching as lawyers repeatedly referred to "the body". They glowered at the public gallery as law students, crammed into room five of the Supreme Court, sniggered and sometimes shrieked with laughter at the antics of the defence team.

Ravi Rutnah, the most flamboyant member of Mr Treebhoowoon's defence team has become a particular favourite of the crowd for comments such as "we will rock and roll those points later".

Until October 2010, Mr Rutnah is understood to have been working as an immigration lawyer in the UK, and has had little involvement with serious criminal cases or high-profile murder cases.

His line of questioning is frequently opaque and he has been taken to task by the judge for "wasting precious time" and "continuously repeating same questions to witness".

Coupled with the stuffy conditions inside court five, a primitive sound system and rattling air conditioning has left the family straining to hear. They could have been forgiven for missing a few hours but have instead remained resolutely in their seats.

Each day, they arrive at court in a chauffeur-driven state car accompanied by officers from the Mauritius police Special Support Unit, and family liaison officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

During breaks in the proceedings, they seek refuge at the back of the court where they are guarded by their police escort from curious members of the public and journalists, to whom Claire McAreavey appealed at the start of the trial for peace during "this very distressing time".

Outside the hours of the trial, the family have remained away from the public gaze, dining where they are staying in order to avoid the scrutiny of locals who have been captivated by the case -- every twist and turn of which is reported daily and at length.

Next week, their ordeal is likely to continue with graphic medical evidence about how Michaela died.

Susan Woodroffe, a forensic scientist based in Oxford, England, is expected to tell the court that she was unable to find any DNA that placed Mr Moneea or Mr Treebhoowoon at the crime scene.

Defence lawyers are hoping that her statement, coupled with criticism of the police handling of the case, their preservation of the crime scene for forensic investigation and alleged torture of the defendants, will be the ticket to freedom.

By the time John McAreavey takes the stand to relive his last precious moments with his wife, and his battle to save her, the case against those accused of killing her could already be crumbling.

Sunday Independent

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