Sunday 17 December 2017

Chaos outside courthouse as Michaela murder trial begins

Cormac McQuinn in Mauritius

THE blaring of police sirens on the sweltering streets of Port Louis heralded the beginning of a chaotic morning of court proceedings.

At 8.30am, two prison vans -- one for each of the men accused of killing Irish honeymooner Michaela McAreavey -- battled through the traffic and swung into a lane beside the Mauritian Supreme Court.

The accused, Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea, emerged handcuffed and surrounded by a dozen policemen armed with batons and guns.

But even these heavily armed officers struggled to force their way through the gathered throng, including up to 50 members of the media, both Irish and Mauritian.

Mr Treebhoowoon's head was bowed and his face was impassive as he was jostled through the crowd.

His young wife Reshma, who has always protested his innocence, was a couple of feet away, her hand covering her mouth with concern.

Mr Moneea looked terrified, his hands clasped and cowering under a police officer's arm as he was led into court.

Other arrivals included police Inspector Ranjit Jokhoo and a grim-faced Brice Lunot, the manager of the Legends Hotel where Ms McAreavey was murdered.

Witness

Former hotel cleaner and 'star witness' Raj Theekoy was also ushered in. He was originally charged in connection to Ms McAreavey's murder -- he has been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.

At 9.10am, the chaos returned with the arrival of Ms McAreavey's husband, John McAreavey, and his family.

Unnoticed at first, TV cameramen and photographers swarmed to the side entrance where they made their appearance and paused briefly for pictures.

He was accompanied by his father Brendan, sister Claire, and brother-in-law Mark Harte, as well as flamboyant local barrister Dick Su Wa, retained by the McAreavey family to hold a "watching brief" over proceedings.

Dressed smartly in a crisp, open-necked white shirt, hands firmly in his pockets, Mr McAreavey walked solemn-faced through the crowd, beyond a police cordon and into the air-conditioned court room.

A crush ensued when police finally opened the court doors to the media, the families of the accused, and other spectators including law students eager to watch the high-profile case -- one of the biggest in the island's history.

The McAreavey family was seated behind the prosecution team, just metres from the two defendants on their left, with Mr McAreavey's wedding ring still prominent on his left hand.

Along with other witnesses, he was asked to leave the courtroom shortly before proceedings began and he missed the moment when charges of murder were put to Mr Treebhoowoon and Mr Moneea.

Both men were asked to stand and it was put to them that they "wilfully, criminally, and with premeditation, killed Michaela Mary Harte, also known as Michaela McAreavey, an Irish national".

Mr Treebhoowoon, speaking in Creole, pleaded "not guilty".

When the charge was put to him, Mr Moneea leaned forward towards Judge Prithviraj Fekna and gesturing with his hand cried, "my lord, I swear I did not kill her".

The judge instructed him to plead either "guilty or not guilty" to which the accused man replied "not guilty".

Jury

Next came jury selection and a laborious process where 100 names were whittled down to the six men and three women who will be ensconced in a hotel for the duration of the trial.

It was announced that the numerous absentees are to be fined 500 rupees (€13.47).

When the jury had left, the names of 48 witnesses, including Mr McAreavey, were called out and they re-entered the court room. The Co Down man walked in with his sister by his side and stood anxiously beside his family, hands back in his pockets.

His name was called as part of a group that included staff from Legends Hotel who were with him during the frantic attempts to revive his wife on that day in January last year.

They are not expected to give their testimony until next week at the earliest.

When the trial adjourned for lunch, the McAreavey family went back outside to the heat and the waiting cameras.

Claire McAreavey read out a brief statement as her brother looked on over her shoulder.

She said it was a "very distressing time" for the Harte and McAreavey families, adding, "we ask for your prayers at this time".

Irish Independent

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