Friday 23 February 2018

The colourful lawyer who promised to return ... but never did

IN the end the promised sequel never materialised.

Defence barrister Ravi Rutnah drew inspiration from Hollywood when he dramatically quit the trial in its second week.

"I'll be back," the colourful lawyer declared. "In Arnold Schwarzenegger style."

The London-based counsel was referring to his intention to appear as a witness for the defence.

But unlike Schwarzenegger's Terminator, Mr Rutnah was not to return for another scene.

The defence's decision not to call him to the stand left one of the case's most unusual lingering questions unanswered.

Did he or did he not eat the fried rice?

A police witness's claim that the lawyer asked to share his portion of takeaway food the evening his client - Avinash Treebhoowoon - allegedly admitted Michaela McAreavey's murder prompted his withdrawal from the case.

"It was a cordial, friendly atmosphere because we even shared our food with Mr Rutnah," Inspector Luciano Gerard told court.

"I still remember there was fried rice and I'm not fond of fried rice and I gave him my portion - it was takeaway."

An incensed Mr Rutnah said the accusation, along with claims he turned up to the meeting at the offices of the police's major crime investigation team (MCIT) more than an hour late, amounted to an attack on his professional integrity.

"As a direct consequence of that, I have decided to withdraw representing accused number one, Avinash Treebhoowoon," he said.

At that he grabbed three legal textbooks between his hands, tapped them loudly on the bench, turned on his heels and strode out of a shocked court room.

If some observers found the theatrical exit hard to digest, the fried rice simply refused to leave the menu.

Time and again lawyers returned to the topic.

But they were not indulging in frivolity, for the fast food portion became a touchstone for the competing claims of the defence and prosecution.

If Mr Rutnah had shared rice with police officers in a convivial atmosphere it would have undermined his claim that both he and his client were threatened before Treebhoowoon was forced to sign a fabricated confession statement.

If the episode was a figment of the police's imagination it was further proof, defence counsel maintained, that they were prepared to stop at nothing to cover up the fact that they had used violence to compel the suspect to make an admission.

With Mr Rutnah departed stage left, Treebhoowoon's senior counsel Sanjeev Teeluckdharry set about getting to the bottom of the affair.

"You gave your fried rice to Mr Rutnah?" he challenged Mr Gerard under cross-examination.

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

The tenacious lawyer then produced a statement from Mr Gerard's superior, Assistant Police Commissioner 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."

Mr Gerard did not think twice before contradicting his boss.

"If Mr Soopun had given a statement that it was on the 13th I will say that Mr Soopun has made an 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 the whole thing had been made up in an attempt to force his colleague to step aside.

"These are allegations and a below-the-belt attack on a legal representative," he said

Chief prosecution Mehdi Manrakhan reacted with incredulity to this assertion.

"What allegations?" he asked.

"Giving someone your fried rice is not an allegation? Below the belt?"

Days later a key prosecution witness unwittingly got embroiled in the matter.

Raj Theekoy, who was originally arrested in the wake of the honeymooner's murder, was asked by Mr Teeluckdharry if he had been served food when in custody.

"Yes, fried rice," the hotel cleaner replied, wondering why his answer had been met with stifled giggles in the public gallery.

Soon it was the turn of Mr Soopun to give his version of the by then infamous meal in the MCIT building in Port Louis two days after Mrs McAreavey's murder.

"We normally had a special dinner when we worked late and we worked until late on the 12th (January 2011)," he explained to Mr Manrakhan.

Mr Soopun, the head of the MCIT, claimed that after a five-minute meeting with his client about his intention to make a full confession statement the next day Mr Rutnah and Treebhoowoon emerged.

"Then we invited them to share our meal," he said. "They said they would be delighted and accepted our invitation.

"Our meal was fried rice, my Lord. Mr Gerard doesn't like to eat fried rice. Mr Rutnah made a request if he can be given the share of Mr Gerard's fried rice and he was happy with it."

It was an account Mr Rutnah never got the opportunity to challenge in court.

He did not come back as promised in his movie-style farewell.

But if he failed to follow the lead of Schwarzenegger's most famous film character, he still fully intends to replicate the Austrian-born actor's real-life career change.

The lawyer has made no secret of his desire to get into politics and one day become the prime minister of Mauritius.

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