Friday 24 November 2017

Michaela murder: Family find court laughter hard to bear

Sandip Mooneea,43, arrives at the Supreme court in Port Louis, Mauritius, on day three of his trial for the murder of Michaela McAreavey. Photo: PA
Mark Harte, brother of Michaela, with John McAreavey's sister, Claire, at the Supreme court. Photo: PA
Documents are carried into court. Photo: PA
John McAreavey, husband of Michaela McAreavey arrives at the Supreme Court in Port Louis, Mauritius where two men are standing trial for her murder on their honeymoon a year ago.
John McAreavey listens as his sister Claire reads a statement outside the court flanked by (far left) Michaela's brother Mark and (right) barrister Dick Sui Wa
Avinash Treebhoowoon, 30, arrives at the Supreme Court in Port Louis, Mauritius, where he will stand trial accused of strangling Michaela McAreavey. Photo: PA

David Young in Port Louis, Mauritius

MARK Harte today bowed his head and looked to the floor as another peal of laughter erupted at the trial of his sister's alleged murderers.

Michaela McAreavey's sister-in-law Claire just stared straight ahead.

Moments earlier they would have struggled to avoid catching glimpses of scenes of crime photos indiscreetly passed between lawyers sitting around them in court.

The trial experience in Mauritius's criminal court must be becoming harder and harder to bear for the relatives of the tragic County Tyrone honeymooner.

Meanwhile her widower John waits elsewhere on the island, excluded from court until he is called as a prosecution witness.

And his wait could be a long one.

The trial of the two hotel workers accused of murdering his 27-year-old bride was scheduled to last two weeks but this seems unlikely.

Fifteen witnesses were timetabled to be called in the first two days of hearing evidence. The cross examination of the sixth of those will resume in the morning.

After another exhaustive questioning session - this time of a police map maker - the judge urged counsel to be respectful of the time.

"Let's not take this lightly," he said as he warned them to cut out "tedious" questions.

"We are in a trial that's likely to be lengthy."

But those in the public gallery certainly don't appear to be growing weary of the exchanges.

One of the benches was literally rocking at one point, such were the chortles from those who seem to be there for the entertainment value.

Flourishes of speech by counsel are regularly greeted with raucous approval.

One lawyer promised to "rock and roll" on a line of questioning in the morning. Those in the gallery loved it, particularly the scores of law students who pack the court every day to witness one of the biggest trials in the island's recent history.

The police officers guarding the accused in court were even laughing.

And all the while Claire and Mark sit in dignified silence.

Earlier a hotel worker, who confessed to murdering Michaela, had his head held under water and was almost suffocated with a towel during interrogation, the court heard. Avinash Treebhoowoon insists his admission of guilt was extracted with police brutality.

The court in Mauritius heard claims that officers also failed to put anti-contamination clothes on him when he was taken to the crime scene at the holiday island's luxury Legends Hotel for a reconstruction three days after the murder.

In another twist, it was later revealed to the jury that a witness who claims he saw Treebhoowoon and his co-accused Sandip Moneea leave the room where the honeymooner was strangled was himself charged in connection with the crime.

Fellow employee at Legends, Raj Theekoy, and two other men, were accused with conspiracy to murder the daughter of Tyrone gaelic football boss Mickey Harte, but all three had the charges against them dropped.

Mrs McAreavey was found dead in her hotel room shortly after lunching with her husband John by the pool.

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

The evidence about the alleged police violence and the additional charges were contained in official documents relating to preliminary court proceedings about the murder, which were presented to the trial by Dewanarayan Ramdawa, a clerk at one of the island's district courts.

Treebhoowoon's lawyer, Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, read into the record a complaint made by the room attendant to the court authorities in the days after the crime in January last year.

Repeating his client's words, the defence counsel outlined what allegedly took place the day after the murder.

"I was brought to Piton police station and I was dealt two slaps at my face, at my left cheek and ear," he said.

"I was brought to MCIT (the police's Major Crime Investigation Team) in Port Louis. There I was undressed and placed in a lying position, I was held by the police and assaulted at the heels and then I was dealt five slaps to my left ear and I can't hear well on one side.

"I was made to suffocate on a towel and I was assaulted again on a table. In the police van I was dealt furthermore (beatings) in the police van."

Mr Teeluckdharry then read what his client alleged took place over the next two days.

"While I was leaving court I went to Port Louis and officers asked me to sit down," he said.

"It was about 7pm. I was placed on the table. I was undressed and a pale of water was filled. I was on a chair, I was gripped by the neck and placed into that pale of water.

"On the following day two officers took me in a van and I was beaten up in the van."

Treebhoowoon claimed each time he was brought to a doctor for a check up.

Mr Ramdawa confirmed to the court the statements were contained in the court files from the preliminary inquiry into the case.

He also detailed the initial charges brought against Mr Theekoy and the other two men.

The court has already heard that Theekoy, who will give evidence in the case, claims he heard a woman cry out in pain from the McAreaveys' room - 1025 - and then saw the two accused exit.

He alleges that Moneea threatened him to keep his mouth shut.

Mrs McAreavey's brother Mark Harte and sister-in-law Claire McAreavey were in court as the claims of police brutality were levelled.

Her widower John was not in attendance as he is due to be called as a prosecution witness later in the trial.

Treebhoowoon, wearing a grey short sleeved T-shirt, stared intently at his lawyer as he read out his complaint.

Moneea, sitting in the dock beside him, showed no emotion.

Both deny murdering the 27-year-old teacher.

Earlier the court heard that Treebhoowoon was not wearing anti-contamination clothes when he was taken to the crime scene for a reconstruction three days after the murder.

Police officers who attended the exercise in room 1025 of the Legends Hotel were also not in protective clothing, a police photographer told jurors.

Harris Jeewooth, a crime scene photographer, was asked by defence counsel Rama Valayden, representing Moneea, to confirm whether anti-contamination measures were taken.

Mr Valayden said: "All witnesses and police officers who were called during your presence during the reconstruction - did they wear any protective clothes to prevent contamination?"

The officer replied: "No my lord."

In the afternoon a police mapper was questioned at length by defence counsel Ravi Ratnah, junior counsel representing Treebhoowoon.

The lawyer asked PC Rajen Hurobin for a range of exact measures in and around the room where Mrs McAreavey was found.

But the line of questioning frustrated both chief prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan and, at times, judge Mr Justice Prithviraj Fecknah.

When the judge ruled irrelevant one question on how many officers Mr Hurobin could remember seeing at the scene, Mr Ratnah reacted in strong terms.

"With all due respect I think it is relevant," he said.

The lawyer insisted he had a right to probe the witness on what he claimed were allegations of "heavy handed police tactics during the investigative stage".

But the judge remained firm on the point.

"This risks getting out of hand," he said.

"We'll calm things down thank you."

The case against Treebhoowoon, from Plaine des Roches, and hotel floor supervisor Moneea, from Petit Raffray, was scheduled to last two weeks but is set to go on for much longer.

Judge Fecknah said today that a "lengthy trial" was ahead.

It is already one the most high-profile criminal cases held on the island.

The jury consists of six men and three women and almost 50 witnesses are listed to give evidence.

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

Mrs McAreavey, from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, was the only daughter of Harte, the GAA boss who has steered his native county to three All Ireland championships.

The Legends Hotel, which has since been renamed the Lux Hotel, is in the fishing village of Grand Gaube, close to Mauritius's Grand Bay.

Mrs McAreavey taught religious education and the Irish language at St Patrick's Academy in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Her Requiem Mass was held close to her family home at St Malachy's chapel in Ballymacilroy - the same church in which she had married a fortnight before she was killed.

Then-Irish president Mary McAleese was among dignitaries at a funeral attended by more than 3,000 people, as the newlywed was buried in her wedding dress.

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