Chaotic scenes in courtroom as Michaela McAreavey accused are cleared of murder
Published 12/07/2012 | 15:30
Police and prosecutors in Mauritius face anger and criticism following the acquittal of two men over the murder of Northern Ireland honeymoon schoolteacher Michaela McAreavey
There were chaotic scenes as the two acquitted men - Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandip Moneea - walked out of the court.
Throngs of people cheered "justice, justice" in Creole as policemen hurried the men through the courtyard.
Moments later defence lawyers were carried aloft.
Outside court Treebhoowoon said he was overjoyed. He also expressed sympathy for the McAreaveys.
"I'm so sad about this lady," he said. "But I did not kill this lady."
Moneea wept as he hugged his lawyer Rama Valayden.
"I am so happy to be back with my family," he said. "These past 18 months have been so hard."
The daughter of Co Tyrone gaelic football manager Mickey Harte was found strangled in her room at the luxury Legends resort in January 2011.
The prosecution had claimed the defendants attacked the 27-year-old teacher when she interrupted them stealing in the room, having momentarily left her husband John at a poolside restaurant to fetch biscuits.
Treebhoowoon, 32, from Plaine de Roches, worked as a room attendant at Legends while Moneea, 43, from Petit Raffray, was his floor supervisor.
They were arrested at the hotel the day after the murder.
The high profile case was originally listed to run nine days but the verdict came in its eighth week.
Both verdicts were unanimous. Jurors took two hours to deliberate.
Members of the McAreavey family walked straight out of court when the foreman of the jury made the verdicts known.
Both accused broke down in tears in the dock while relatives jumped to their feet cheering wildly.
The verdict will inevitably prompt serious questions for Mauritian police over their handling of the murder investigation.
While allegations of police brutality against one of the accused were a consistent theme through the eight weeks of the trial, many other aspects of officers' conduct were also put under the spotlight.
None more than the treatment of John McAreavey in the hours after the crime. The bereaved husband was arrested, handcuffed and left alone in a police station for five hours.
Defendant Avinash Treebhoowoon made his first official complaint of ill-treatment at a court appearance two days after the murder.
He would later allege that a confession statement signed by him the following day was extracted by violent means.
His claims against individual officers were repeated again and again throughout the case by his lawyer Sanjeev Teeluckdharry and then by the defendant himself when he went into the witness box.
In summary he alleged he was subject to numerous beatings, grabbed in the groin, whipped on the soles of his feet with a pipe, hit on the head with a plastic bottle and stripped naked and held down on a table while his head was plunged into a bucket of water.
At one stage he vomited blood, he claimed.
The torture was not just physical, according to the accused. Detectives also allegedly threatened to lock up and beat his parents and, bizarrely, apparently told him they were going to send his wife to Ireland to live with Mrs McAreavey's widower.
His chief tormentors, the accused claimed, were the officers of the police's major crime investigation team (MCIT).
Defence lawyer Rama Valayden memorably claimed MCIT stood for "My confession is true".
Treebhoowoon said much of the alleged violence was meted out in the team's headquarters in Port Louis.
Each claim was rejected by the MCIT personnel when they gave evidence.
The head of the MCIT, assistant chief commissioner Yoosoof Soopun, was also forced to deny claims he threatened to kill the suspect with a revolver he kept concealed in his sock
Chief prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan challenged Treebhoowoon to explain why doctors who examined him during this period did not find any external signs of injury.
Mr Manrakhan put it to the defendant: "I tell you, you never got beaten, you lied."
"No, I got beaten," he replied firmly.
Mr Teeluckdharry said it would be naive to think police would not know of torture techniques that would leave no marks or traces.
Mr Valayden, who represented Moneea, shocked the jury as he attempted to demonstrate how hard it was to leave a lasting mark with a slap by striking himself hard on both cheeks.
The nine jurors looked taken aback, especially when the lawyer urged them to do the same.
In a startling revelation during his opening address, Mr Valayden then claimed he had got one of his legal team to subject him to another form of brutality alleged by Treebhoowoon - whipping on the feet with a plastic pipe.
"I asked the big guy to do it on me," he said pointing at a rather well-set junior counsel sitting behind him. "But you can try it too."
Mr Soopun also had to explain the conduct of officers when Mr McAreavey outlined how he was apparently treated by police.
He said the decision to detain the widower was a wrong one, but he blamed the Legends hotel, insisting that staff withheld room entry records that would have immediately eliminated him from inquiries.
But he offered no explanation for the alleged conduct of his officers during Mr McAreavey's ordeal, in particular the one who apparently asked him why he was crying.
"You're young, you'll get another wife," he allegedly said.
Aside from the incendiary claims of brutalising Treebhoowoon and what Mr McAreavey described as "insensitivity" toward him, other allegations were levelled over the basic competence of the investigation and the officers who carried it out.
The testimony of successive policemen on the stand was seized upon by defence lawyers as evidence of a mismanaged and unprofessional probe.
Contentious issues included:
Mr Valayden continually pressed officers on four fingerprints found at the scene that did not belong to the accused or the McAreaveys.
One was found on a pair of sunglasses found under the sink of the bathroom, two on the door leading to the corridor and one on a curtain dividing the bathroom from the bedroom.
Mr Soopun offered a potential explanation - that a number of people had been in the room in the moments after the honeymooner was first discovered, including other hotel guests.
Mr Valayden asked why they had not been fingerprinted to eliminate them from inquiries.
"Some of the people who had access in the room had already left the country, my lord," explained the officer.
But the lawyer claimed the failure not to trace the prints, particularly the one on the inside of one lens of the sunglasses, may have seen the real killer escape.
"Any person who could have left the print behind that lens must have been one of the assailants or the murderer himself," alleged Mr Valayden.
One found in the hotel room was not tested for DNA despite claims in Treebhoowoon's alleged confession he was rifling through a purse when Mrs McAreavey walked in.
Mr Soopun said Mr McAreavey told police nothing was taken from the purse so it was returned to him. He explained that it was three days after the murder when the defendant made the alleged claim.
"By that time it was too late, John McAreavey was already at the airport with the coffin of his wife to leave for Ireland," he said.
The police were also heavily criticised for limiting the number of items they sent to a UK specialist in "touch DNA" for further analysis.
:: DNA results
Tests carried out on swabs from Mrs McAreavey's body and other samples from the crime scene found no links to the accused. Mr Soopun told the court this did not prompt him to review the case.
"I was personally satisfied that the two persons, accused number one and accused number two, are directly involved in the murder of the poor deceased," he insisted.
Mr Valayden ridiculed how the police expressed this so-called satisfaction at a media briefing the day after the tests were received.
The press conference, the lawyer claimed, was: "Better than when JFK was killed. Remember, those of us who are old enough, the next day president Johnson came in (to a press conference) alleging we know (who did it), and up to now it remains a complete mystery of the American nation."
:: Statements of staff and residents
Police acknowledged they did not take statements from a number of potential witnesses, including fellow guests at Legends who were staying close to the room where the honeymooner was strangled.
Two medics who attended to Mrs McAreavey after she was found and two shop assistants who had been working close by were also not asked to provide statements.
The most glaring omission, according to the defence, was a German couple who indicated they had seen something but were apparently not asked to contribute because of the language barrier, a claim police denied.
"If that person(s) came to police a statement would have been recorded, we had invited people to come and give evidence that night (of the murder), my lord," insisted Mr Soopun.
The officer said door-to-door inquiries were made with guests in English, French and Creole.
But the defence responded by pointing out that as well as Germans, there were also Finnish and Italian speakers staying close to the room.
:: Scene of crime photos
The defence claimed the police failed to take pictures of a number of potentially relevant items and areas at the crime scene.
The photographs that were taken were not appropriate because they were in black and white, lawyers added.
Police photographer Harris Jeewooth told the court he only took the shots he was ordered to capture but he also revealed the case was the first murder investigation he had worked on.
Ravi Rutnah, then lawyer for Treebhoowoon, alleged: "There has been catastrophic failure to take photos that may have been significant to this inquiry."
Among other facets of the investigation criticised by the defence were failures to obtain records of all people leaving and entering the hotel on the day; to dress suspects and officers in anti-contamination suits during reconstructions at Legends; and to check whether times on the security cameras and electronic room card readers corresponded with real time.
In response to a number of the claims, Mr Soopun alleged that police had been unable to access certain information because the hotel had not been forthcoming.
"We didn't have the co-operation of the hotel management, it's unfortunate to have to tell this in court here," he said.
The police were not only criticised for what they did at the time of the murder, but also how they acted in the witness box under cross examination.
Mr Teeluckdharry claimed: "The prosecution evidence ... can be summarised as follows, 'I can't say, I don't remember, I personally did not do it, I was only acting under instructions, I have to check the records'."
Mr Soopun defended the conduct of all his officers throughout the investigation. They were all experienced men, he said, and none more so than himself, with 40 years in the police under his belt.
Mr Teeluckdharry tried to turn the proud claim against the officer.
"Mr Soopun has carried out the investigation in the same manner investigations used to be carried out 40 years ago," he said.
The barrister insisted the right to a fair trial included the right to a fair and impartial inquiry.
He told the jury: "The question for you is, has there been a fair and impartial inquiry or has there been any inquiry at all?"
Throughout police maintained there was both.
Hotel worker Avinash Treebhoowoon was tortured by police for confession
Avinash Treebhoowoon was tortured into confessing to a murder he did not commit by a police force in a hurry to find someone to blame.
The jury's not guilty verdict showed they believed the room cleaner's insistence that a detailed admission statement produced three days after Michaela McAreavey's death, which bore his signature, was a mere fabrication.
Relief at being spared a potential 60-year jail term will be tempered with anger that he has been incarcerated for the last 18 months on what jurors evidently concluded was a tissue of lies invented by detectives.
The 32-year-old will now attempt to restart his life, still on medication for the recurring nightmares he claims he has about the officers who beat him into signing.
Treebhoowoon had been working at Legends hotel for almost five years when Mrs McAreavey was murdered last January.
As a room attendant he was paid 7800 Mauritian rupees a month - about 200 euro.
It was during that time he met his wife Reshma, who used to be a sales assistant.
The couple married in 2009. She soon became pregnant but would lose the child.
She was present at court throughout the trial, the orange streak through her hair a symbol of love for her husband.
A potential defence witness, for six weeks she maintained a quiet vigil on a bench outside court room five, unable to attend proceedings.
But each morning she would scurry over to the dock to spend a few moments with him before court began.
When her husband's lawyers decided not to call her to give evidence, she was finally able to sit and listen to the trial's concluding phases.
Treebhoowoon grew up in a small village in the north of the island and left school early and without qualifications.
Prior to Legends he worked in another hotel - the Meridien - and also had spells of employment as a lorry driver and in one of the country's many textile factories.
During his time in the Meridien he was suspended for two weeks after an Italian couple claimed 500 euro was stolen from their room.
Treebhoowoon insisted he was cleared by a disciplinary committee, which blamed one of his co-workers, and he went on to work at the hotel for another two years.
In that period he says he was offered but turned down a promotion opportunity.
"I was not yet ready for the responsibility," he told his trial.
At the time of the murder he was one of five room attendants working under the supervision of his co-accused Sandip Moneea.
His day began at 7.15am and he would work to 4pm, cleaning nine or 10 rooms in that period.
One of those he worked with was Raj Theekoy, a man he considered a friend but one who would go on to implicate him in the murder as the prosecution's star witness.
Fellow attendant Govinden Samynaden said the two were always laughing together.
"Avinash and Raj were always joking," he said.
Having left school early, Treebhoowoon claims he does not have great command of the English language. An interpreter had to explain proceedings throughout the trial.
Up until two weeks before the murder, he and his wife had lived at his parents' house in Amaury, a rural village in the centre north of the island close to Riviere du Rempart.
There he spoke a language of Indian origin, Bhojpuri.
His father Sooriedeo is a 52-year-old labourer who cannot read or write.
Treebhoowoon claimed he had a fight with him on December 22, 2010 over his failure to buy gas for the house. The row prompted him to leave.
He stayed for a short period with his wife's mother but then moved into rented accommodation in Plaine de Roches.
It was an episode that prosecutor Mehdi Manrakhan found hard to explain, asking where Treebhoowoon got the money to pay for the new pad.
"Let us not forget that this is a man who would fight with his father over buying a gas cylinder and yet find the money to go rent a house for him and his wife to live in?" he said.
The incident that saw him move out of the family home assumed great significance in the trial. After he signed the confession statement, Treebhoowoon met briefly with his father in a police station.
An officer who witnessed the incident claimed the suspect said: "Forget about your son now, I have made a mistake."
But in the witness box both Treebhoowoon and his father insisted he was talking about the family fall out and not the murder, instead saying: "Don't forget about your son," before he asked to move home.
In the event he could neither go to Amaury nor settle into his rented apartment.
From the day after the murder his new home was to be the four walls of a prison cell.