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Tuesday 24 October 2017

Fried rice-gate gets attention at trial

David Young

A PORTION of takeaway food can seldom have attracted as much focus at a murder trial.

Especially one with absolutely no direct link to the crime.



But barrister Ravi Rutnah's alleged consumption of a police officer's carton of fried rice was centre-stage again for a time on day nine of the Michaela McAreavey case.



The claim that he accepted the food from chief inspector Luciano Gerard was part of the reason the outspoken defence lawyer dramatically withdrew from the trial earlier in the week.



Mr Gerard's recollection of the encounter at his office, along with his allegation that Mr Rutnah was more than an hour late arriving for that meeting with accused Avinash Treebhoowoon, amounted, the advocate insisted, to an accusatory attack on his reputation.



With Mr Rutnah gone but not forgotten, his colleague, Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, took on the task of getting to the bottom of fried rice-gate.



The senior defence counsel first probed the officer's claim that he did not care much for the dish. This, he insisted, did not quite tally if his men had gone out and bought him some.



"Officers went to buy fried rice even though you don't like fried rice?" he queried.



Senior prosecution counsel Mehdi Manrakhan did not quite see it like that.



"He didn't say that," he interjected vociferously.



"He didn't say his officers brought him fried rice even though he doesn't like fried rice."



On advice from the judge Prithjviraj Fecknah, Mr Teeluckdharry took another approach.



"You said your officers brought fried rice for you and Coca-Cola. You said to court you gave your fried rice to Mr Rutnah. Can you tell the court at what time that would be?"



The officer replied, noting the time the lawyer arrived at the major crime investigation team (MCIT) offices in Port Louis: "It must be around 20:33."



The barrister continued: "If I understand correctly, you welcomed him with fried rice and Coca-Cola at the offices of the MCIT?"



Mr Gerard said he would not have quite described it as a welcome: "But whilst we were sitting in the room, in the video room, at one point in time Mr Rutnah said he had not had his dinner yet so I gave him my takeaway."



Mr Teeluckdharry wanted confirmation, knowing he had something up his sleeve.



"You gave your fried rice to Mr Rutnah?"



The policeman replied: "Yes, I am adamant about that."



The tenacious defence counsel then produced his trump card: a statement from Mr Gerard's superior, superintendent Yoosoof Soopun, in which he claimed it was actually him who donated rice to a hungry Mr Rutnah.



"Mr Soopun said he gave fried rice to Mr Ravi Rutnah, and not on the 12th but on 13th January."



This was one occasion when Mr Gerard appeared to have no problem contradicting his boss.



"If Mr Soopun had given a statement that it was on the 13th I will say that Mr Soopun has made a error. I am totally sure about that."



The lawyer hit back: "My instructions are, neither your version or the version of Mr Soopun are correct."



Mr Gerard stood by his story: "I would say my version was correct because it was my takeaway. And I gave it to Mr Rutnah."



Mr Teeluckdharry insisted he was incorrect and went further, claiming the whole thing had been made up in an attempt to force Mr Rutnah to step aside. He said: "These are allegations and a below-the-belt attack on a legal representative."



Mr Manrakhan reacted with incredulity: "What allegations? Giving someone your fried rice is not an allegation? Below the belt?"



Judge Fecknah said his view was that the rice was only part of the defence's claim against the officer.



If the prosecutor was infuriated, he was not as vexed as Mr Teeluckdharry who effectively challenged him to either put up or shut up.



He warned: "Either my friend objects to my question or he walks out of the courtroom."



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