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Verdict looms in Mauritius murder trial

2012-07-11 12:50

Port Louis - Mauritius is readying for the verdict in one of the most high profile court cases ever seen on the Indian Ocean island - the murder trial of two men accused of strangling an Irish honeymooner.

With tourism making up more than a quarter of the economy of the white-beach and palm fringed island, the murder of Michela McAreavey - the daughter of a leading Irish sports personality - has made headlines at home and abroad.

"This is the first time since independence [1968] that we've had a trial that's been so high-profile internationally," said defence lawyer Rama Valayden.

McAreavey, 27, a County Tyrone school teacher and the daughter of Tyrone Gaelic football boss Mickey Harte, was strangled in January 2011 and her body dumped in the bathtub of her luxury hotel room in the north of the island.

The two accused, Avinash Treebhowoon and Sandip Mooneea, former workers at Legends resort - now renamed Lux - both deny the charges, which could see them facing decades in jail if found guilty. The verdict is expected on Thursday.

Her body was discovered by her distraught husband John McAreavey, who has been in court for every day of the trial, including giving heart-breaking evidence on the horror of realising his new bride was dead.

He told the court that his life ended the day his wife was killed and - on the verge of tears - recounted how hours after her death police said to him: "You're still young, you'll get another one."

Originally expected to last two weeks, the trial has lasted for eight, with multiple twists in the case watched by international media, especially journalists from Ireland.

A lot of witnesses questioned

"The proceedings have taken time," said Dick Ng Sui Wa, a lawyer tasked with monitoring the trial by the McAreavey-Harte families.

"There were a lot of witnesses who were questioned for a long time by both the defence and the prosecution, and we didn't sit every day," he added, explaining why the case has taken far longer than initially tabled.

"All of us wanted to be cautious, maybe over-cautious," added Valayden, talking about the legal process.

Several dramatic moments in the courthouse have made headlines, a case that has shone a different light on a normally tranquil tropical island with one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa.

Mauritius, a volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs and lagoons, is best known for top-end tourism and as a honeymoon destination, with nearly one million tourists a year, employing directly or indirectly around 100 000 people.

Britain's Foreign Office refers to the murder of McAreavey in its travel advice to the island, noting that "Mauritius is a country with low levels of violent crime, and incidents such as this are very uncommon, but as when travelling anywhere you should remain vigilant and exercise caution".

The prosecution says that McAreavey disturbed the two men while they were stealing belongings from her room at the luxury hotel, and that Treebhowoon strangled her while Mooneea held her legs down to stop her struggling.

Treebhowoon, 31, initially confessed to the killing, but then claimed the confession had been beaten out of him while he was in police custody.

Legal directions

A few days into the trial furious arguments erupted between defence and prosecution lawyers, after the former suggested the presence of a sex manual belonging to the couple seized by police suggested that McAreavey had in fact died during "violent lovemaking."

Critics also say a slapdash approach by police investigators may have jeopardised key forensic evidence.

A British forensic scientist told the court that no traces of Treebhowoon or Mooeena's DNA has been found on the victim's body or in the hotel room.

On Thursday morning the judge will give legal directions to the nine member jury before they begin their deliberations. A majority verdict, not a unanimous one, is required.

The defence lawyers have urged the jurors to acquit their clients, while the prosecution in their summing up said that Treebhowoon and Mooneea were guilty of "barbaric murder".