The prosecution was on Tuesday absent from the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory High Court, Jabi, where the newly transferred bribery case involving a former Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Mr. Farouk Lawan, was to come up for mention.
Recalls that the four-year case had suffered another huge setback caused by a sudden transfer of the case by the Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello, from one judge to another.
Documents obtained by our reporter from the Federal Ministry of Justice had shown that Justice Bello’s decision to re-assign the case was connected with a petition dated March 21, 2017, by Lawan accusing the immediate-past trial judge, Justice Angela Otaluka, of bias in her handling of the trial.
Court 32 is presided over by Justice Yusuf Halilu, who will be the fourth judge that will be handling the case since it was filed in 2012.
With the transfer of the case from Justice Otaluka to Justice Halilu, the case had to start from the beginning with a fresh arraignment of the defendant before the new judge.
A hearing notice served by Justice Halilu’s court on both the prosecution and the defence was part of the documents obtained from the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The hearing notice dated June 7, 2017, showed that Justice Halilu’s court had fixed June 20 (Tuesday) for the mention of the case.
At the Tuesday’s proceedings, the defendant with his defence team was present in court.
But the prosecution team led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN) was absent.
This prompted the trial judge, Justice Halilu, to adjourn the trial until July 5.
The Federal Government, through the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, is prosecuting Lawan on amended three counts of corruptly collecting $500,000 out of a $3m bribe he allegedly requested from Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Mr. Femi Otedola.
Lawan was accused of accepting $500,000 as bribe for the removal of Otedola’s company’s name, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, from the list of firms indicted by the Lawan-led House committee for allegedly abusing the fuel subsidy regime in 2012.
While the matter was before Justice Otaluka, the prosecution was nearing the end of its case having called four out of its five proposed witnesses, when the Chief Judge suddenly withdrew the case from Justice Otaluka and re-assigned it to Justice Halilu.
Four of the proposed witnesses having testified, the prosecution was left to call Otedola as its last witness.
This made the second time a petition by Lawan alleging bias against the trial judge would cause the Chief Judge to transfer the case to a new judge.
The first trial judge was Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi, from whom the case was withdrawn and reassigned after Lawan lost his preliminary objection to the charges at the Court of Appeal.
On November 18, 2014, the second trial judge, Justice Adebukola Banjoko, who was presiding over the case in Gudu Division of the FCT judiciary, withdrew from the case over an allegation of likelihood of bias levelled against her by Lawan.
Lawan had in a petition to the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court seeking the re-assignment of the case to another judge, stated that Justice Banjoko was likely to be biased.
This Lawan said was because the judge and her family were allegedly close to Otedola, whom he (Lawan) said was a proposed prosecution witness and his (Lawan’s) accuser.
The case was then transferred to Justice Otaluka.
Following the latest petition by Lawan, the case was transferred to the fourth judge, Justice Halilu.
A letter about by the private prosecuting counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), seeking the AGF’s “directive as to the next line of action” had described Lawan as being “notorious for making undeserved allegation when he feels he is likely to lose”.
Awomolo’s letter was received by the AGF office on June 8, 2017.
The prosecutor stated in the letter obtained by The PUNCH from the Federal Ministry of Justice that the ground of Lawan’s petition which was the basis for the transfer of the case to a new judge, was “an appelable decision and the defendant filed no appeal against the decision complained about the petition”.
He noted that the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court took the decision, “without opportunity to us (the prosecution) for comment and without due regard to the long history of the case, the antecedent 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,” the letter stated.
In his March 21, 2017, petition which he personally signed, Lawan 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’s complaints were mainly the alleged refusal of Justice Otaluka to adjourn the trial on different occasions to enable his lead defence counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) to handle the defence’s case.
“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,” Lawan said.