Mauritius must get to grips with torture if it wishes to restore confidence

The failure to find and convict the killers of Michaela McAreavey has exposed glaring holes in the Mauritius criminal justice system and a worrying reliance on confessions allegedly extracted under torture.

The Mauritian jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict seems to show that they believed Avinash Treebhoowoon’s allegation that a confession statement produced three days after Michaela McAreavey’s murder was a police concoction, only signed by him after days of torture.

Treebhoowoon made his first official complaint of ill-treatment at a court appearance days after the murder, in January last year.

In short, he alleged he was subject to numerous beatings, whipped on the soles of his feet with a pipe, hit on the head, stripped naked and held down on a table while police tried to suffocate him with a towel and held his head in a bucket of water. On the third day he signed the statement confessing to the murder.

It is the sort of torture allegation which has emerged from the likes of Abu Ghraib, Iraq’s infamous “torture prison”. But in Mauritius, paradise holiday isle?

For the local jury, it is clear that the accusations of confession, extracted by the police under torture, were all too believable. Tragically, such allegations have surfaced all too often in Mauritius and they came as no surprise to Amnesty International.

Mauritius is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other human rights laws. Yet it has struggled to live up its international promises.

Amnesty International has had long standing concerns about allegations of torture and ill-treatment of suspects by police during criminal investigations. As far back as 2001 Amnesty called for independent investigations into widespread allegations of abuse, noting:

The repeated accusations brought against the Mauritian authorities by individuals who claim that their right to be free from torture and ill-treatment and their right to be given a fair trial have been violated put a question mark behind the government’s commitment to the protection of human rights.

Sadly, the last decade has not seen those concerns addressed effectively and the United Nations has since entered the fray.

In 2005, the UN Human Rights Committee reported:

The Committee notes with concern concurring reports from non-governmental organizations on numerous instances of ill-treatment and deaths of persons in custody and in prisons attributable to police officers. The Committee is concerned at the fact that few complaints are actually investigated in order to identify and punish the officers responsible.

In 2007 the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture carried out a visit to Mauritius, where they reviewed the treatment of persons detained in various institutions and conducted interviews with detainees. The findings and recommendations of the mission were given to the country’s authorities, but permission for publication has been refused by the Mauritian government.

In June 2011, just months after allegations of torture emerged in the McAreavey murder case, the UN Committee against Torture reported on Mauritius, noting that the:

Committee regrets that the report [by the government of Mauritius in response to previous concerns raised] was submitted eight years late, which hinders the Committee from ongoing analysis of the implementation of the Convention.

before going on to reiterate, what are by now, all too familiar concerns:

The Committee is concerned that only few complaints for torture, excessive use of force or ill-treatment by law enforcement or prison officers or cases of death occurred in police custody are investigated and prosecuted…

So, over a decade of documented complaints about torture of detainees, yet the same allegations persist, and the Mauritian authorities appear unwilling to take action to stamp out the practice.

The upshot appears to be that police and prosecutors bring cases to trial, reliant on little evidence other than confessions extracted under torture.

The victims aren’t only the accused – abused, threatened and beaten – but the relatives and friends of crime victims, who want to see, but are denied, justice for their loved ones.

Until Mauritius gets to grip with its policing practices, glaringly exposed by this high profile trial, then, locally and internationally, crucial confidence in its administration of justice will remain absent.

And more families like the McAreaveys and Hartes will be left heart-broken, twisting in the wind, waiting for justice.

That’s the message that our politicians and, if they are going to assist in this case, the PSNI and the Gardaí must bring to the island’s authorities.

A version of this article was published in yesterday’s print edition Belfast Telegraph and has just been published online.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan