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Sunday 18 February 2018

Michaela: Judge admonishes lawyers after sex guide row

State prosecutor Mehdi Nanrakhan leaving the Supreme Court in Mauritius

David Young in Port Louis, Mauritius

FOUR days into the trial and the judge had clearly had enough. "All of you stand up," Mr Justice Prithviraj Fecknah ordered the lawyers. ''I want to address you."

Senior and junior defence and prosecution counsel sheepishly got to their feet. The rest of court fell silent - a rarity in recent days in Port Louis's criminal court.

The latest judicial intervention in the Michaela McAreavey case came after a verbal bout between defence lawyer Sanjeev Teeluckdharry and state prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan.

"I thought we had sorted this out," the exasperated judge said sternly, referring to previous admonishments.

"It was clear that these kind of personal exchanges are not going to be tolerated. I would ask Mr Teeluckdharry to contain yourself and your emotions and I would ask state to intervene (only) when it's strictly necessary."

If yesterday saw his junior counsel Ravi Rutnah hold centre stage, the fourth day of the trial had Mr Teeluckdharry in the role.

But there was little of the levity that had marked previous exchanges in courtroom five.

The bid by the senior defence barrister for accused Avinash Treebhoowoon to probe the sex life of the tragic Co Tyrone honeymooner unsettled many in court, with some visibly outraged by the line of questioning.

The fractious wrangle that ensued with Mr Manrakhan saw court adjourned for a period. Mrs McAreavey's sister-in-law Claire took the opportunity to step outside.

At the end of the day's hearing, Mr Teeluckdharry defended his approach, in one of the many ad hoc news conferences he and colleagues hold outside court during breaks in proceedings.

Restrictions on out of court commentary during trials do not appear overly stringent in Mauritius.

One local news outlet has being holding a text poll to establish whether the public believe the defendants are guilty or not.

In another press interview in the yard of the Supreme Court Building, Mr Rutnah rejected claims his cross examination technique is overly flamboyant.

And he was not the lawyer who got the only discernible laugh in court earlier.

When questioning a police mapper on the dimensions of his drawings, Rama Valayden, counsel for co-accused Sandip Moneea, thought it appropriate to quip: "Size matters".

The turn of phrase brought the expected chortle from the public benches, but unlike other days it was not allowed to go unchecked.

Perhaps cognisant of adverse coverage in Ireland of the repeated outbursts in court, a clerk was swift to take action.

"Shush," he hissed.

"Silence."

The rain that poured down on Port Louis on Thursday gave way to intense sunshine on the last sitting of the trial's first week.

Some found it uncomfortably hot in court, the thick curtains that block out the windows behind the two impassive defendants acting like a warming blanket for the room.

Whether it was the heat or the temperature of the legal clashes with the prosecution, proceedings clearly had taken their toll on Mr Teeluckdharry.

When the judge indicated his intention to wrap up half an hour early at 3pm, he made a special request.

"Can we break at 2.30pm?" the lawyer enquired.

"I am feeling exhausted."

Earlier attempts to explore the sex life of Michaela and her husband provoked fierce clashes at the trial of two men accused of the crime.

A defence lawyer's bid to question a police officer about a sex guide found in the Mauritius hotel room where the daughter of Gaelic football boss Mickey Harte was strangled was met with fury by the prosecution, with the case adjourned for a period.

Principal state counsel Mehdi Manrakhan reacted angrily when Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, representing accused Avinash Treebhoowoon, asked the officer if the book - The Ultimate Sex Guide - contained material of a violent nature.

"I object in the strongest possible terms," Mr Manrakhan said as legal colleagues slammed papers on the benches in outrage.

Mr Teeluckdharry earlier insisted the book went to "the crux of the defence's case".

"We are trying to unveil the truth," said the barrister after Mr Manrakhan's intervention.

Judge Mr Justice Prithviraj Fecknah upheld the objections of the prosecution, telling Mr Teeluckdharry that such questions should not be directed at the witness - police sergeant Govinder Ramasawmy - as he had already told the court he had not examined the book's contents.

Mrs McAreavey's brother Mark Harte looked at the floor as her sister-in-law Claire watched the heated exchanges in a packed and humid courtroom in Port Louis.

Her widower John, who has returned to the island for the trial, was unable to attend proceedings as he is due to be called as a prosecution witness.

Legends Hotel employees Treebhoowoon, 30, and Sandip Moneea, 42, deny the premeditated murder of the 27-year-old teacher from Co Tyrone.

Mrs McAreavey was found dead in her hotel room shortly after lunching with her husband by a pool at the hotel last January.

The prosecution claims she returned to her room to fetch biscuits for her tea and caught the accused stealing from her room.

The exchanges on the fourth day of the trial developed after sergeant Ramasawmy told the court he gave the book to Mr McAreavey three days after his wife was killed, along with 12 other possessions from their room in the luxury hotel.

These included a laptop, mobile phones and personal items.

In cross-examination, Mr Teeluckdharry had asked whether an effort had been made by police to examine the contents of the phones and the sites looked at the laptop.

This sparked the first verbal clash with Mr Manrakhan.

Judge Fecknah warned both lawyers he would not tolerate personal exchanges, but tensions increased when Mr Teeluckdharry turned to the sex guide.

Despite sergeant Ramasawmy's insistence he had not looked inside the book, Mr Teeluckdharry twice asked him to comment on whether it contained extreme material.

After the state's objections, the judge intervened again. He said the line of questioning was not appropriate for a witness who had not examined the book.

"I can see where you are going with this," Justice Fecknah told the defence lawyer. "I think you are asking the wrong witness."

Sergeant Ramasawmy accompanied Mr McAreavey back to room 1025 in the hotel the day before he handed him the possessions, to get the bereaved husband to show police how he found his wife in the bath.

After cross-examination by Mr Teeluckdharry, a lawyer for Moneea, Rama Valayden, pressed the officer on his actions in the days after the murder.

He accused sergeant Ramasawmy of not interviewing a number of employees and guests at Legends who could have assisted the investigation, including a German couple who, the barrister claimed, were not asked to make statements because they could not speak English.

"Officer, you did not do anything in that inquiry. In fact you participated in bungling that inquiry," Mr Valayden said.

Sergeant Ramasawmy rejected the allegation: "No, my lord."

Police inspector Sunilduth Nucchedy began giving his evidence to the court before proceedings were closed for the week shortly after 2pm.

The officer described the crime scene photographs taken in the room.

These included pictures of Mrs McAreavey's body. Mr Nucchedy said bruise and scratch marks were clearly visible on the newlywed's neck and face.

A jury of six men and three women is hearing the case and almost 50 witnesses are listed to give evidence.

Though most Mauritians speak French Creole as their first tongue, court proceedings are being heard in English.

The case against Treebhoowoon, from Plaine des Roches, and Moneea, from Petit Raffray, was scheduled to last two weeks but is set to go on for much longer, with Judge Fecknah having warned that a "lengthy trial" was ahead.

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