Murder in Paradise

Why did ALL counsel who appeared in the case dismissed by FeknahJ. allow themselves to be cross-examined by the BBC?

By Sonah Ruchpaul

The flashback below is purely factual and serves no interests whatsoever, be they of people or institutions in this country or abroad. One or two legal opinions of the author, a senior barrister, economist, and investigator, will seep through as he goes along but will emerge into daylight by the end of the article.

Flashback1: The factual narrative

At about 2.42 pm on 10 January 2011, Michaela McAreavey née Harte was killed at ‘Legends’, a 4-star hotel at Grand Gaube, Mauritius, now rebranded LUX Grand Gaube. The crime took place while Michaela was honeymooning at the hotel with her husband John McAreavey. The cause of death, as per the death certificate issued by the relevant authority in Mauritius is “Strangulation”. According to one report, Michaela’s body had been found gagged in her bathtub, with a towel or similar cloth between her teeth tied round her neck. The time span between the actual killing and the discovery of the body is approximately one hour, give or take a few seconds. During this hour, about 25 individuals, identified or identifiable at the time, accessed the scene of crime. Most of them were hotel staff, from managers downward, but one non-staff person who entered the room was John McAreavey himself.

Michaela was born on 31 December 1983, which means she was 27 when she died. She was the daughter of Mickey and Maria Harte. She has two surviving brothers and a sister, who is married to a barrister who has been helping the family in its search for her killer/s in Mauritius.

As to Mickey McAreavey, the name may suggest a Scottish and therefore Protestant ancestry in the context of Irish history and politics, but Mickey is a born and bred Catholic and remains so, together with his wife Maria. They sent their children to infant, primary and secondary schools territorially segregated as Northern Ireland remains to this day. Quite naturally they later channelled her to St Mary’s University College and Queen’s University, both of Belfast, where she obtained successive degrees. When she landed to her death at ‘Legends’, she was a teacher at St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, Northern Ireland.

The killing shocked the whole of Europe, as Mauritius had been known since Independence as a tourist hot-spot and for the emblematic kindness of its people. But in the UK, more particularly Northern Ireland, the reaction was wrath, fuming wrath, and calls for revenge by retaliation against diminutive Mauritius through boycotts of our tourism and textiles. At one stage the tremor was so high I had the feeling that our immigrants in Belfast must be worrying about their physical safety. The Sun and the Daily Express in London jumped on the Irish frenzy to instantly incite the English to cancel their holidays in Mauritius. 

Coincidence also hit us hard. Mickey McAreavey, the father-in-law of Michaela, was a football celebrity in Northern Ireland and had been in this prestigious limelight during the previous 30 years or so, first as a player (very often top scorer), then as Manager of the All Ireland Senior Football Championship, which was hotly contested by Catholics and Protestants.  Mickey first managed a senior team in County Tyrone and later took over another in Lough County, from which he retired in 2020.

John McAreavey was also a footballer before his trip to Mauritius on 30 December 2011. He had started making a name for himself in Down GAA when he met with tragedy.

John didn’t smoke or drink. He was a Pioneer, which is the name given to a member of the Total Abstinence Association the Sacred Heart (PTAA). The badge indicated to anyone that its bearer is an abstainer of all alcoholic drinks and should not be offered any.

But by another coincidence, on this horrific day, when everyone in this country was in gloom, we had quietly carried out the feat of uniting bloodlessly the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, which would equal, if not pygmy, that of unifying the Montagues and Capulets of ‘Romeo and Juliet’!!

Flashback 2: The case before Feknah J.

The hearing of the Michaela Harte started before Feknah J on 22 May 2012, that is, hardly five months after the killing. This looks more than fast-track for a murder trial with a jury. For a murder case without a jury, for example one where the accused has confessed to the crime, the average time for the court record to be in shape and enrolled is one year. In this one, as explained above there were about 25people who entered the scene of crime plus John McAreavey himself. Each one of them was a possible culprit.

Furthermore, Michaela’s coffin was emplaned in almost no time after the killing. She was buried in a fresh grave at St Malachy’s churchyard, of the same church where she had married her husband John a few days earlier. This made the police inquiry even more difficult.

One can therefore safely presume that there had been intense local and international pressure on the then Prime Minister of Mauritius, Dr Navin Ramgoolam to get a trial going as soon as possible. This pressure could have been a mistake of the Northern Ireland government itself!

In chronological order this is what happened following the killing:

 On 30 December 2011, within minutes of the discovery of the body, Raj Theekoy, a Legends employee serving as ‘Vallet’ was arrested for theft or attempted theft in Room 1025, the room occupied by John and Michaela, who were having lunch in the hotel’s restaurant nearby. Raj Theekoy made a complete confession as to the theft but denied having had anything to do with the killing. In almost the same breath Raj Theekoy gave eye-witness evidence against two Room Service Supervisors namely Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandeep Mooneea. The 2-hour confession was made in the presence of his counsel, Ravi Rutnah.

In the precipitations of one and all to find proof of the killing in the hour that followed the discovery of Michaela’s body in Room 1025, police picked up therein a wallet (‘porte-feuilles’) belonging to John McAreavey. This wallet was handed back to John on the same day without any DNA or fingerprint tests having been carried out on it. In a statement to the BBC journalists at the time, Dr Satish Boolell, then Chief Government Pathologist, said: “As for me, the very fact that police gave back the wallet without any DNA and fingerprint tests to John McAreavey less than 24 hours after the murder is blatant proof of incompetence or corruption.”

Raj Theekoy was remanded to police cell for no less than 77 days. Bail was refused despite motions for his release by his then counsel, Navin Ramchurn, who stated that his client never complained of any police brutality during his detention.

Four of the 25 were charged before the Assizes on 7 May 2012. Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandeep Mooneea were charged with murder.

The trial started on 22 May 2012. It expected to take nine days ‘de die in diem’ but in fact ended after eight weeks. Both accused charged with murder were found Not Guilty. Avinash Treebhoowoon was defended by Rama Valayden, while Sandeep Mooneea was defended by Sanjeev Teeluckdharry.

Both defence counsel stated that the government must continue its search for the real culprit(s). The McAreaveys lashed at the incompetence of the Mauritian police and government.

On 3 October 2021, Raj Theekoy was found dead in his home in Goodlands, Mauritius. This sudden news caused considerable speculation – both here and abroad.

Here, one can guess how ‘inventive’, nay, ‘creative’ our so-called independent radios became. Could the local CCID, guileful as it had been during the first five months after the killing, have progressed to being vile, treacherous, nay, lecherous? Just to save our tourism industry, which NCR said would reach 2 million during his time in office?

In Northern Ireland the apparent suicide of Raj Theekoy was a heavenly sign for more pressure by John McAreavey and his family to dig a culprit. Armed with £1.4 million obtained through arbitration from LUX Grand Gaube as ‘damages’ for the murder of Michaela, they had offered Rs 5 million to any whistle-blower for information leading to the arrest of any culprit but to no avail.

Later, due to continual goading amounting to harassment, the CCID, with Heman Jangi in charge, dug harder and unearthed ‘new’ evidence. Avinash Treebhoowoon and Sandeep Mooneea were charged anew, this time with ‘Conspiracy to commit Murder’.

In no time the new charge was dismissed on the broad ground of ‘res judicata’ (the principle that a cause of action may not be relitigated once it has been judged on the merits) and its multiple ramifications given the intricacies fully set out above. This time Antoine Domingue, Senior Counsel, lent his weight to the arguments. Basically, he said that there is no way whatsoever any new charge against the same two original accused will succeed, unless the new charges are independent of the old ones, which remains so far impossible.

However, John McAreavey’s family didn’t give up. The news about Raj Theekoy’s death rushed them to SSR Airport, with reinforcements from BBC Northern Ireland and two journalists therefrom.

It seems the journalists didn’t come here to do their own digging but to quiz counsel for all accused, more particularly Ravi Rutnah, who clearly allowed himself to be cross-examined like in court.

When taken together to the questions put to Rama Valayden and his answers, a clear strategy by all barristers who appeared for all Mauritians who were charged: Ravi Rutnah would bear the brunt of the journalists’ quiz. He would withdraw as counsel during the police inquiry and turn up as a witness for the defence before Feknah J.

In fact, he was not called as a witness for the defence. As to his or his client’s complaint that he had been tortured by police who wrested the confessions, there was no ‘Voir Dire’(A procedure whereby a confession is challenged in court on the ground that it has been of any manner of pressure. This hearing is done in the absence of the jury).

There was no ‘Voir Dire’ by Judge Feknah. In his address to the jury of six men and three women, he invited to ignore altogether what they’ve heard outside his Court about the accused and to take into account only what they’ve just heard before him. He said: “This is a case which has hit the headlines in the spoken and written media and many politicians have intervened on it. But you are not politicians. You must ignore them and decide on the basis of what you’ve heard here and only here, whether the accused are guilty or not.”

The recent quizzes by the BBC journalists may be heard live on the BBC Northern Ireland website.

One question which arises in the mind of anyone, good, bad, or ugly, is whether Ravi Rutnah&Ors can be prosecuted from …  something like “Conspiracy to assist their clients illegal means”. I don’t adhere to this idea, as the case would take ages to be over and the end, if there’s any could be…  inconclusive!!

I cannot conclude in this case, because of its national and international meanders, each one tree-like. I can only make remarks, which themselves may attract criticism. They are not in any order of importance and can only be few.

  1. I subscribe to the opinion of my learned friend Antoine Domingue to the effect that any new charges against Avinash Treebhoowoon and/or Sandeep Mooneea will be fruitless.
  2. The strategy used by all counsel in having Ravi Rutnah withdraw, if only to be called as perfect as a perfect crime can be. Of course, it looks like winning a case by hook or by crook, but aren’t there hundreds of crime puzzles around the world that remain unsolved to this day? Didn’t Britain have its Hanratty? The UK still refuses to admit it killed this innocent man. Just wait. Other Hanratty-like cases will come up, especially with improvements in DNA technology.
  3. We cannot send a man to the gallows just to save our tourism industry.
  4. I fully understand the feeling of the Northern Ireland journalists that justice has not been done or been seen to be done. Despite their long experience as journalists, they remain laymen in the field of law. I grieve the loss of Michaela Harte as well to her husband John and her close family in Ireland.
  5. I do not subscribe to the view of some people in Mauritius that John McAreavey was involved in the murder of his wife. If that were true, he would not have chosen a venue for the crime which is 11,000 miles away from his Irish home and a stage within hundreds which would have outmanoeuvred the Bard at his best.

He would also need capacities as an actor and choreographer combining the cream of Hollywood and Bollywood!!

Finally, I advise that John McAreavey and his family keep digging. Who knows what may come up?

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 28 April 2023

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