The prosecution team in the corruption trial of a former House of Representatives’ member, Farouk Lawan refused to turn up in court yesterday at the planned commencement of the trial before a new judge.
Lawan, who has been on trial for about four years now, was last before Justice Angela Otaluka of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Lugbe, where the prosecution was close to rounding off its case having called four of its scheduled five witnesses.
The Chief Judge of the High Court of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello suddenly threw spanners in the prosecution’s works when he directed a transfer of the case to another judge, Justice Yusuf Halilu of court 32, High Court of the FCT in Jabi.
Lead prosecution lawyer, Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) said, as against the standard procedure, Justice Bello did not hear from the prosecution (the other side in the case) before ordering the transfer of the case.
Awomolo objected to the transfer and has written the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) amd Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami (SAN) for his intervention.
Court documents sighted by The Nation revealed that Justice Bello elected to re-assign Lawan’s trial to Justice Halilu on the strength of a petition by Lawan, dated March 21, 2017 in which he accused Justice Otaluka of bias in her handling of the trial.
The implication of the transfer is that the case that started about four years ago and with the prosecution having called four of its scheduled five witnesses, will have to start afresh before Justice Halilu.
Justice Halilu is the fourth judge to which the case will be transferred since its commencement on February 1, 2013.
The Federal Government, through the office of the AGF, is prosecuting Lawan on a three-count amended charge of corrupt collection of $500,000 out of the $3m bribe he allegedly requested from Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Mr. Femi Otedola.
Lawan, who was the Chairman of the House of Reps ad-hoc committee that investigated the fuel subsidy fraud under President Goodluck Jonathan, was accused of accepting $500,000 as bribe to remove the name of Otedola’s firms, Zenon Petroleum and Gas and Synopsis Enterprises Limited – from the list of companies found to have allegedly defrauded the Federal Government of billions of naira by allegedly abusing the fuel subsidy regime in 2012.
Lawan was initially arraigned with the Secretary of his ad-hoc committee, Boniface Emenalo on a seven-count charge in which they were accused of accepting $620,000 from Otedola.
The prosecution later reviewed the case, reduced the count to three, the money to $500,000 and removed Emenalo as a defendant, who it later featured as a prosecution witness.
After their arraignment on February 1, 2013, before Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi of the High Court of the FCT in Maitama, Lawan appealed the judge’s ruling to the effect that the defence has a case to answer, a development that halted further proceedings in the case until May 12, 2014 when the Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal and held that he should submit himself for trial.
By the time the Appeal Court’s verdict was ready, Justice Oniyangi had been elevated to the Court of Appeal, following which the case was transferred to Justice Bukola Banjoko of the High Court of the FCT in Gudu.
Before trial could commence before Justice Banjoko, Lawan wrote a petition and a application, asking the judge to withdraw from the case.
On November 18, 2014, Justice Banjoko withdrew from the case. She refused to continue handling the case despite the withdrawal of the application filed by Lawan, asking her to disqualify herself from the case.
Lawan’s lawyer, Mike Ozekhome (SAN), who authored the application dated October 29, 2014 had applied to withdraw it.
In a ruling on November 18, 2014 Justice Banjoko held that though the application has been withdrawn and the Chief Judge had cleared her of the allegation in a petition written against her by Lawan, the content of the petition were “scandalous challenge” on her integrity.
“In my 17 years on the bench – six years and as a magistrate and 11 years as a judge – I have never been confronted with a scandalous challenge of my integrity,” she said.
Lawan had, in addition to the application by Ozekhome, wrote a petition to the court’s Chief Judge, alleging that Justice Banjoko was likely to be bias based on an alleged close relationship between her and Otedola, who is a proposed witness and the complainant in the case.
Ozekhome denied knowledge of the petition and, while applying to withdraw the application with which he had sought the judge’s withdrawal, pleaded with the judge to overlook the wrong impression created by the application and his client’s petition.
The case was later reassigned to Justice Otaluka, where trial commenced and the prosecution amended the charge, reducing the defendant to one and the counts to three.
The prosecution concluded with its fourth witness and was to call it last witness, when Lawan wrote his latest petition dated March 21, 2017.
Lawan, in the petition he personally signed, urged the Chief Judge “to use your good offices to transfer my case to a judge who does not have personal interest in the case and who will try me fairly”.
Lawan accused Justice Otaluka of allegedly refusing to adjourn the trial on different occasions to enable his lead defence lawyer, Ozekhome (SAN) to handle his case personally.
Lawan adde: “In my view of the harsh and unfair manner, as well as the apparent and consistent prejudice exhibited by the judge in handling my case, especially by her refusal to grant me an adjournment, so that I will be represented by a counsel of my own choice, and her expression that she must quickly conclude my case, leaves me with no doubt that she has a mindset to hurriedly convict me at all cost for reasons best known to her.”
Awomolo, in objecting to the transfer of the case, wrote to the AGF on June 8, 2017 and sought his “directive as to the next line of action.”
He described Lawan as being “notorious for making undeserved allegation when he feels he is likely to lose”.
Awomolo argued that the ground of Lawan’s petition, on which ground Justice Bello transferred the case to a new judge, was “an appealable decision and the defendant filed no appeal against the decision complained about in the petition”.
He noted that the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court took the decision, “without opportunity to us (the prosecution) to us for comment and without due regard to the long history of the case, the antecedents of the defendant (Lawan) and the damage to the case of the prosecution, transferred the case to another judge for trial de novo (afresh)”.
“This, your honour, is very frustrating, discouraging, oppressive on the prosecution and undeserved more so when the prosecution was not given an opportunity for hearing,” Awomolo said.
Justice Bello head the presidential committee that initiated the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJA) that is being hailed for its effort to eliminate delay in criminal trials.
Among the several endorsements the ACJA has received since its enactment in 2015 was the May 9, 2017 ruling of the Supreme Court, in which it upheld Section 306 of the ACJA, which prohibits stay of proceedings in criminal trials.
The ruling was an application for stay of proceedings filed by an ex-spokesman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), seeking stay in his trial before a Federal High Court in Abuja.
Incidentally, Justice Bello handled the trial of five policemen, accused of killing six Igbo traders in Apo, Abuja in 2005. The case lasted about 12 years until May 9, 2017 when he gave his judgement.
20 June, 2017