Murder, sex, chaos and the rule of law in Mauritius

By Dr Sean Carey

Last week, UK and Irish journalists were taken aback at events both inside and outside the Supreme Court in the Mauritian capital Port Louis at the trial of Avinash Treebhoowun, 30, and Sandip Moonea, 42, who are accused of the premeditated murder of Northern Irish honeymooner Michaela McAreavey.

The 27-year-old former Rose of Tralee contestant and Irish language and religious studies teacher at St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, the only daughter of legendary Tyrone Gaelic football manger Mickey Harte, was strangled and found in the bathtub of her room at the five-star Legends resort in the small fishing village of Grande Gaube in the north-west of the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island on 10 January 2011.

Mrs McAreavey’s death led to a huge outpouring of grief on both sides of the Irish border, as well as internationally. Those attending the Requiem Mass a week later at St Malachy’s chapel in Ballymacilroy – the same church in which she was married two weeks earlier – included the then Irish President Mary McAleese, as well as Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness. Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, who studied medicine in Dublin, made a personal apology to the families involved.

When the trial began on 22 May, a number of UK and Irish journalists, including the BBC’s Natasha Sayee, filed reports that widower John McAreavey, an accountant and Gaelic footballer, was “jostled” as he made his way into the Supreme Court along with his father, sister and brother-in-law while Mauritian police officers stood idly by. According to the Irish Independent’s David Young they had to be “helped manfully by two officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland… but collectively they could do little to quell the chaos”.

These accounts misinterpret how crowd behaviour underpinned by dense and extensive kinship ties works in Mauritius. At events of major social significance everyone who is a relative is obliged to attend, show support and be part of what’s going on. Add to the large crowd outside the Supreme Court members of the fourth estate with notebooks, microphones and cameras supervised by police officers with a different concept of what constitutes “chaos”, and it was bound to get lively.

Then UK and Irish journalists reported that law students from the University of Mauritius, who have been observing the proceedings as part of their studies have been “sniggering” and letting out collective “oohs” and “ahs” at the performance of “flamboyant” Ravi Rutnah, one of the junior defence barristers. As their behaviour would earn at least a reprimand from a presiding judge in the UK and Ireland, Natasha Sayee took Rutnah to task in the precincts of the court accusing him of causing distress to the grieving members of the Harte and McAreavey families by playing to the gallery. Rutnah, who is acting for Treebhoowun, waved away such concerns claiming that he had “nothing to say” about “the perceptions of the international media”.

Much of the furore can be explained because of a misunderstanding about how the rule of law operates in Mauritius. For example, its legal system, which is based on French civil law and some elements of English common law, uses English in court proceedings even though Creole is the lingua franca for almost everyone on the island except the Franco-Mauritians (who make up around 2 per cent of the population and insist on speaking French to one another). But foreign journalists should know that Mauritius, a former British colony, is not the UK or Ireland and it is naïve and ethnocentric just because of a common language to expect or demand the reproduction of their respective home countries’ legal customs and practices.

Indeed, on Friday morning cultural differences between Mauritian and European legal systems were highlighted again when a blazing row developed between members of the state’s prosecuting and the defendants’ teams after Sanjeev Teeluckdharry, another of Treeboowhun’s barristers, alerted the nine strong jury that items found in the room at the Legends hotel in Grande Gaube in the north-west of the Indian Ocean island, which included a box of condoms, lubricants and a book, The Ultimate Sex Guide, indicated that the newlyweds had engaged in sado-masochistic sex games and “violent lovemaking”. It was the “crux of the defence case” according to Teeluckdharry. “What is the truth?” he asked. “Have police arrested the proper culprit?”

Although the prosecuting team led by Mehdi Manrakhan, a law graduate of University College Dublin, loudly objected, the intention of the defence was obvious: Treebhoowun and Moonea were innocent and it was John McAreavey, who should be in the dock. Unsurprisingly, the claim left the relatives of the widower, who was not in court because he is a state witness, looking visibly distressed as they sat in the hot and stuffy courtroom (with good reason as it emerged a few days later that the ‘book’ was actually an insert from Cosmopolitan magazine purchased at the airport).

But even though the way the noisy dispute between the two legal teams was enacted reflected local custom, turning the tables on prosecutors is standard practice in courtrooms throughout the world. The recent case in the UK when serial killer Levi Bellfield was on trial charged with the abduction and murder of 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler saw her father Robert cross examined about the significance of the bondage gear and extreme fetishist magazines and videos found by police in the family home is a case in point. Despite the public outcry that the family’s privacy had been destroyed, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke refused calls for a review of criminal cases stating that although it must have been a “horrifying ordeal… any defendant has the right to put forward a defence, however distasteful or distressing for victims it may be”.

There is a further point related to social change. Mauritius, which is about the same size as Surrey and has a population of nearly 1.3 million, has experienced unprecedented levels of economic growth and social mobility over the last two decades. The Indian Ocean nation, best known as a high-end holiday destination, is classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank. Despite the slowdown affecting its main export and tourist markets in Europe it has ambitions as befits one of Africa’s most vibrant and successful democracies to do even better for its citizens.

Indeed, outsiders should be aware that Mauritius not only takes economic growth extremely seriously but the transparency and robustness of its legal system as well, even when it makes for an uncomfortable experience for foreigners caught up in court proceedings. Why? Two reasons. First, an ‘open’ society like Mauritius which is undergoing dramatic social and cultural changes will generate a much greater number of disputes – criminal and civil – that need to be resolved satisfactorily than a society which is growing less rapidly and is, by comparison, relatively stable. Secondly, because the international reputation of the Indian Ocean island is a vitally important element in the country’s ongoing attempt to become less reliant on the economies of Europe and instead reposition itself as the gateway for legal and financial services between the new growth economies of mainland Africa and Asia, especially India and China.

For the last five years Mauritius has topped the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which assesses the strength of civil society, legal institutions, human rights, personal safety and sustainable economic opportunities of 53 African countries. Put simply, Mauritius respects the rule of law both within its borders and internationally because it has to. European journalists would be wise to look beyond the cultural differences and acknowledge aspects of this achievement in their reporting.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 1 June 2012

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