The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has appealed to the Supreme Court to nullify a February 19, 2020 Court of Appeal’s judgment which imposed the N3.1bn corruption trial of a former Benue State governor, Gabriel Suswam, on a judge who had twice rejected handling the case.
The anti-graft agency has also filed an application for an injunction before the Court of Appeal in Abuja to stop the imposition of the case on the judge, until its appeal to the Supreme Court challenging the Court of Appeal’s judgment is heard and determined.
The PUNCH obtained copies of the court documents on Thursday.
A three-man panel of the Court of Appeal in Abuja led by Justice Stephen Adah, had on February 19, 2020, ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, to withdraw the case from Justice Okon Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja, and return it to Justice Ahmed Mohammed, who was originally handling it, but later voluntarily withdrew from the case at the same Abuja division of the court.
Justice Mohammed first withdrew from the case on June 6, 2016, citing a publication by SaharaReporters which accused him of having been compromised to give Suswam a “soft landing.”
But he reversed his decision and thereafter continued with it after the defence and the prosecuting teams prevailed on him through the then Chief Judge, Justice Ibrahim Auta, to continue handling the case.
However, following another story published by SaharaReporters levelling similar allegation against him, the judge, in a letter dated July 5, 2019, again withdrew from the case and returned the case file to the court’s Chief Judge, Justice John Tsoho, for re-assignment to another judge.
The Chief Judge of the court then re-assigned the case to Justice Abang who has since been presiding over the case with four prosecution witnesses already presented by the EFCC within a short period.
But Suswam, an incumbent senator, appealed against the Chief Judge’s decision.
His appeal was partly upheld by the Court of Appeal which, despite adjudging Justice Abang as having shown “commendable diligence in the trial”, made an order directing the Federal High Court’s Chief Judge to return the case to Justice Mohammed.
Barely two days after the Court of Appeal in Abuja ordered the return of the trial to Justice Mohammed, the EFCC, on February 21, 2020, filed five grounds of appeal asking the Supreme Court to “set aside the order of the Court of Appeal”, and order Justice Abang “to continue with the expeditious hearing of the case”
The commission argued that the Court of Appeal, having ruled that Justice Mohammed “has persisted in an unjustified reluctance and refusal to continue the trial of the case”, it “ought not to return the case file back to ensure that justice is served within a reasonable time.”
“After (Justice Mohammed) returning the case file to the honourable Chief Judge of the Federal High Court the second time, the honourable Chief Judge had no better alternative but to assign the case file in charge number FHC/ABJ/CR/362/2015 to another judge of the Federal High Court for expeditious hearing,” EFCC’s lawyer, Mr. Oluwaleke Atolagbe of the law firm of Mr Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), argued.
He added that the case was not transferred away from Justice Mohammed but that the “voluntary withdrawal by the judge from the case without the prompting of any parties to the case necessitated the reassignment of the case to another and such cannot be a transfer.”
On February 25, 2020, the EFCC applied to the Court of Appeal in Abuja to restrain the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court from giving effect to its order for the return of the case to Justice Mohammed.
In its affidavit filed in support of the application, the commission said it “has called four witnesses before Justice Ahmed Mohammed within a period of four months and the prosecution has not even concluded with the fourth witness,” but that the prosecution “has called four witnesses within a period of four months and the second respondent (the second defendant) is on the verge of concluding his cross-examination.”
The commission therefore sought, “an order of injunction restraining the honourable Chief Judge of the Federal High Court from returning the case file” to Justice Mohammed “pending the determination of the appeal by the first respondent/appellant against the judgment of this honourable court dated February 19, 2020 in appeal number CA/A/1007C/2019.”
The EFCC had on September 30, 2019 re-arraigned Suswam and his co-defendant, Omadachi Okolobia, before Justice Abang, the judge to whom the case was reassigned after Justice Mohammed’s voluntary withdrawal from it.