The Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello, has returned the bribery case against a former member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Farouk Lawan, to Justice Angela Otaluka, who had heard the case almost half-way before it was abruptly transferred to another judge last year.
Justice Bello had, on the basis of a petition authored by Lawan, an ex-Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on investigation into fuel subsidy regime in 2012, transferred the case from Justice Otaluka, who is of the Lugbe Division of the FCT High Court, to Justice Yusuf Halilu of the Jabi Division.
The Federal Government, through the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation, is prosecuting Lawan on amended four counts of corrupt collection of $500,000 out of the $3m bribe he allegedly requested from the 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.
The prosecution had called four out of its five proposed witnesses when the case was abruptly transferred from Justice Otaluka to Justice Halilu in June 2017.
But the lead prosecuting counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), had, though a motion filed before Justice Halilu, challenged the transfer of the case, describing the Chief Judge’s action as illegal.
Justice Halilu, 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.
The PUNCH had reported that the prosecution had filed a notice of appeal hinged on three grounds and subsequently an appellant’s brief against Justice Halilu’s ruling.
Awomolo contended in the appeal that the transfer of the part-heard case, which was nearing conclusion before Justice Otaluka, to Justice Halilu, was not only wrong but illegal.
But before the Federal Government’s appeal could be heard, the Chief Judge returned the case to Justice Otaluka for continuation of trial.
The prosecution, represented by Mrs. Victoria Awomolo (SAN), on Monday, informed Justice Otaluka that they only got the hearing notice for the day’s proceedings last Thursday.
She said the development did not give them enough time to prepare, for the Monday’s proceedings, the prosecution witness, who was testifying in the witness box before the case was transferred.
A serving member of the House of Representatives and the Chairman of the House Committee on Narcotics and Financial Crimes in the 2011-2015 legislative session, Mr. Adams Jagaba, last testified in the case on May 10, 2017.
Jagaba had concluded his evidence-in-chief but was still being cross-examined by Lawan’s lead counsel, Chief Mike Ozehome (SAN), when the case was transferred.
But Ozekhome’s law firm, on Monday, distanced itself from the defendant’s petition which caused the Chief Judge to reassign the case to another judge.
Representing the law firm in court, Mr. Nkem Okoro, told the judge that had the chambers been aware of Lawan’s intention to write the petition, they would have discouraged him from doing so.
He, however, urged the judge to voluntarily withdraw from the case so that the thought of the petition would not taint her eventual decision in the case.
But in response, the prosecuting counsel, insisted that the defence’s latest application lacked legal basis, adding that a judge could only withdraw from a case based on a legally-founded reason.
Justice Otaluka agreed with the prosecution and adjourned the case till February 15 for further cross-examination of Jagaba.
The case has, so far, passed through four judges since February 2013 when the matter commenced.
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 reassigned 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.