…Arraigned before a new judge
Former Governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suwsam (now a serving Senator) and his ex-Finance Commissioner, Omadachi Oklobi lost on Monday in a bid to stop their on-going criminal trial.
Suswam and Okolobia are facing a nine-count charge of money laundering and diversion of funds to the tune of N3.1billion.
The charge was filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
On Monday, Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court, in a ruling, rejected their objection to the transfer of the case from the former trial judge, Justice Ahmed Mohammed, who withdrew from the trial.
Justice Abang said he has jurisdiction to take over the trial and dismissed the objection raised by the defendants against the transfer of the case.
The judge said he had seen a letter, written on July 5, 2019, by Justice Mohammed, detailing reasons why he recused himself from the case.
Justice Abang said the letter forms part of the proceedings in the case despite that both the prosecution counsel and counsel to the defendants did not make reference to it in their submissions.
Justice Abang, who read the letter to the hearing of all, explained Justice Mohammed in the letter stated: “What I find disturbing is the continuous attack on my person by Sahara Reporters. How can I continue with the case the same Sahara Reporters has continuously made allusions. There is no need to continue.”
The judge said Justice Mohammed complained that there was no need for him to continue with the case because if Suswam is convicted or discharged, he would be accused of bias.
He noted that Justice Mohammed further said, in the letter: “So, I find it necessary to recuse myself from the case.”
Justice Abang said it will be a risky business, which he is not prepared to take if he returned the case file to the acting CJ on the account of the defendants’ application.
The judge noted that the case was reassigned to promote justice, adding that Justice Mohammed voluntarily recused himself, even without a petition.
Justice Abang further noted that the case could suffer more delay and justice denied if Justice Mohammed was compelled to go ahead with it.
He said: “Nobody will suffer injustice or shut out if it commences de novo. I can’t reverse the administrative decision of the acting CJ, to do so will be to disobey the acting CJ. I am not prepared to take the risk.
“I have jurisdiction to hear the matter, the application is hereby dismissed for lacking in merit. The defendants are to take their plea afresh,” the judge said.
Following the ruling, the defendants were then arraigned. They pleaded not guilty to the charge.
After the defendants pleaded to the charge afresh, Justice Abang adjourned until October 29, for the commencement of trial.
Suswam and Oklobia were initially arraigned in November 2015 before Justice Mohammed of the same Federal High Court, Abuja, on the same charge.
Trial had gone far, with the prosecution presenting four witnesses, before Justice Mohammed elected to withdraw from the case over some publications on online platforms, alleging misconduct against the person of the judge.
On July 6, 2019, Justice Mohammed returned the case file to the acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, on the ground that online portal, Sahara Reporters, published a story, accusing him of receiving bribe from Suswam, in foreign currency, amounting to N500m to deliver a favourable verdict.
Consequently, the acting CJ reassigned the case to Justice Abang to start de novo (afresh), and action the defendants objected to.
They filed an application, seeking the remittance of the case file back to Justice Mohammed for continuation.
The defendants argued that Justice Mohammed could still exercise jurisdiction over the case and the acting CJ was wrong to have reassigned it.
Lawyer to Suswam, Chinelo Ogbozor, argued that there was no order from the court that prompted the transfer of the case from Justice Mohammed, submitting that it was an abuse of court process.
She added that the defendants will suffer injustice especially when four witnesses have been presented by the prosecuting agency and crossed examined by the defendants.
The arguments by the defendants were overruled in the ruling delivered by Justice Abang on Monday.