The Federal Government has told the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal that the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, acted illegally by transferring a part-heard bribery trial of a former member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Farouk Lawan, from one judge to another in March 2017.
Lawan ran into trouble when he was the Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy in 2012 for allegedly collecting $620,000 from the Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, Mr. Femi Otedola.
Justice Yusuf Halilu of the FCT High Court in Jabi, Abuja, to whom the case was re-assigned, had, in a ruling delivered on October 17, 2017, dismissed the Federal Government’s application for the return of the case to the former trial judge, Justice Angela Otaluka, of the Lugbe Division of the court.
But the private lawyer prosecuting Lawan on behalf of the Federal Government, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), filed a three-ground notice of appeal and subsequently his appellant’s brief against Justice Halilu’s ruling.
He contended that the transfer of the part-heard case, which was nearing conclusion before Otaluka to Justice Halilu, was not only wrong but illegal.
Contending that the CJ acted without jurisdiction, Awomolo argued that the transfer of the case from Justice Otaluka, after four out of the five proposed prosecution witnesses had testified, contravened the provision of Section 98(2) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
The senior advocate maintained that Section 98(2) of the ACJA expressly provides that the power of the Chief Judge to transfer a case “shall not be exercised” where the prosecution had called even one witness let alone four out of the five proposed witnesses.
The Federal Government, through the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, is prosecuting Lawan on amended four counts of corruptly collecting $500,000 out of the $3m bribe he allegedly requested from Otedola.
Lawan was accused of accepting $500,000 as a bribe for the removal of Otedola’s company’s name, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, from the list of firms indicted by the Lawan-led House committee for allegedly abusing the fuel subsidy regime in 2012.
The prosecution was nearing the end of its case, having called four out of its five proposed witnesses, when the CJ, Justice Bello, acting on a petition submitted by Lawan in March 2017, suddenly withdrew the case from Justice Otaluka and re-assigned it to Justice Halilu, who is now the fourth judge to handle the trial.
Challenging the transfer of the case in its motion filed on June 30, the prosecution argued that it violated the provisions of Section 98 of the ACJ Act 2015.
Ruling on October 17, 2017, however, Justice Halilu held that the CJ of the FCT High Court did not owe anybody any explanation for the transfer of such a case.
But the Federal Government, through Awomolo, in its appellant’s brief, submitted two issues for determination, argued that given the stage at which the case was, the Chief Judge was wrong to transfer it to another judge.
He said, “We submit that the learned trial judge erred in law in the interpretation of the law when he held that the Hon. Chief Judge has unfettered powers to re-allocate any criminal case whatever the stage of prosecution provided it appears to him to be fair and just.
“We submit that the Chief Judge, on the undisputed facts of this case, was wrong and acted without jurisdiction when he unilaterally transferred a part-heard and nearly concluded criminal case without and in total disregard for the ACJA.
“We submit that Sub-section 2 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act mandatorily provides that the power of the Chief Judge shall not be exercised where the prosecution has called one witness let alone four out of five witnesses.
“The consequence of the exercise of power of the Chief Judge in the face of mandatory prohibition is that the transfer of the appellant’s case after four witnesses was illegal, null and void.”
Lawan was first arraigned before Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi in February 2013.
But upon Justice Oniyangi’s elevation to the Court of Appeal, the case was re-assigned to Justice Adebukola Banjoko.
The prosecution had barely called one witness when Lawan complained to the Chief Judge, accusing Justice Banjoko of bias.
Justice Banjoko voluntarily withdrew from the case, which was subsequently transferred to Justice Otaluka, before whom Lawan took his plea for the third time.
The prosecution had called four out of its five proposed witnesses and tendered documents when the case was transferred from Justice Otaluka upon another complaint of bias by Lawan against the judge.
With the transfer of the case from Justice Otaluka, Justice Halilu became the fourth judge to whom the case was assigned within the four years of its commencement.
Praying for an order returning the case to Justice Otaluka, the Federal Government stated, “That the Hon. CJ could not administratively transfer the appellant’s case in which four out of five witnesses have been called.
“That it is mandatory and an obligation for the Hon. Chief Judge to comply with Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).”
The prosecution contended that the transfer of the case to Justice Halilu on the basis of Lawan’s unproven allegations of bias against the former trial judge, Justice Angela Otaluka, “is against the interest of justice, good governance and public opinion.”
Awomolo therefore asked Justice Halilu to decline jurisdiction to hear the case and return it to Justice Otaluka in the Lugbe Division of the FCT High Court, where the case had gone half-way before the controversial transfer.