By Leke Adeseri, News Editor & Emma Ujah
LAGOSâ€”THE 12-member jury deliberating on the money laundering trial of associates of the former Governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, yesterday, found his sister, Christine Ibie-Ibori, guilty of all charges of money laundering and mortgage fraud.
The sentence passed was, however, not known at press time, but the jury acquitted Iboriâ€™s former assistant, Adebimpe Pogoson andÂ Ms. Udoamaka Okoronkw of the charges against them.
It had been a tough time for the defence lawyers of associates of former Governor James Ibori. On a specific bad day the lawyers were said to have effectively conceded the substantive grounds, resorting to hanging desperately on technicalities.
A lawyer who had followed the case told Vanguard: â€œThatâ€™s whatâ€™s been happening throughout the case.â€
In the dock were Iboriâ€™s mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo, his sister, Christine Ibie-Ibori, and his former personal aide, Pogoson. Also facing legal trouble were Iboriâ€™s lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil, and his wife, Theresa Nkoyo Ibori.
At the Southwark Crown Court presided over by Justice Christopher Harding, the former governorâ€™s lawyers could not refute the prosecutionâ€™s argument that Ms. Okoronkwo â€œhandled paper work and transfer of fundsâ€ on behalf of Ibori using a company owned by the former governor in the UK Island of Guernsey.
The prosecution had earlier presented evidence to show that Iboriâ€™s sister, Christine, wasÂ used by Ibori, along with one Mr. Desar and two others, to criminally acquire various properties in the UK.
Handling of transfer of funds
Unable to discredit the evidence, Christine Iboriâ€™s defence team argued that she was actually â€œhoodwinkedâ€ by the men into taking part in the criminal deals.
The prosecution countered thatÂ there was no evidence that she was hoodwinked, and that â€œeven if Mr. Desar and others were less than scrupulous in their dealings, the fact does not necessarily exonerate Christine Ibori since she had been proven to be part of the shady deals.â€
On Ms. Okoronkwo, the prosecution and defence lawyers essentially agreed that she, among other things, handled the transfer of funds provided by James Ibori for the purchase of corporate vehicles for the Guernsey-based company, Zacon and Zetah. Finding itself against the ropes, the defence team argued that Okoronkwo was, technically, not guilty of â€œmanagement of funds for the companyâ€ as stated in the prosecutionâ€™s opening statement, adding that in â€œCompany Lawâ€, â€œhandling paper workâ€ was not the same as management.
In response, the prosecution appealed to a â€˜common senseâ€™ definition of the word â€˜manageâ€™, but the defence insisted that it had a different meaning on â€˜point of lawâ€™.
The prosecution and defence lawyers engaged in lengthy argument on the issue, with the judge interjecting questions during the animated exchanges that lasted more than 30 minutes. The prosecution argued that even if the word â€˜manageâ€™ was not admissible, the case against Iboriâ€™s mistress had been proven on the substance that she illegally handled criminal funds.
When the judge accepted the prosecutionâ€™s submission, the defence lawyers argued at length with him, insisting that the original indictment, on which the case had been conducted, was that of â€œmanagementâ€ rather than â€œhandling of criminal funds.â€
A lawyer who observed the hearing told Vanguard that â€œthe judge was rather amazed at the objections raised by the defence team, but promised to take a look at their arguments and other documentary evidence and make his views known in a subsequent court session.â€
It was not clear, yesterday, the effect the conviction would have on Britainâ€™s attempt to extradite the former governor who was arrested in Dubai, United Arab Emirates last month, especially as Ibori was reported to be working on getting political asylum in that country.
Ibori rejects verdict
However, embattled former Governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, hasÂ rejected the judgment of the Southwark Court in London which found his sister, Mrs. Christine Ibori-Ibie, guilty of money laundering charges.
Chief Ibori said in a statement by his Media Assistant, Mr. Tony Eluemunor, in Abuja, that the Crown Prosecution failed to establish any proceeds of crime and evidence of crime against his sister.
The statement said: â€œIbori has totally rejected the verdict returned by the jury against his sister because no evidence of any crime, corruption or money laundering was established against her. He said that the fact that she obeyed the advice of her lawyers to exercise her right not to mount the witness stand should not amount to a crime for which she would be found guilty on all counts.
â€œThat she chose to remain silent should not be the reason why she should have been so punished, that is why her lawyers have served notice that they will appeal against the judgment.â€
While indicating that his sister would appeal the judgment, Ibori also wondered how she would be found guilty while the other two accused persons: Ms. Udoamaka Okoronkwo and Ms. Adebimkpe Pogoson were freed.
The statement added: â€œThis is because despite the Judgeâ€™s directive of last week that every charge must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, despite the failure of the Crown Prosecution to establish any proceeds of crime, despite the Prosecutionâ€™s failure to evidence any crime, it is difficult to understand how his sister alone could have been found guilty of money laundering without proof by the London court.
â€œAlso, it is a fact that during the judgeâ€™s summing up last week, he directed that the mortgage charges were â€œnot safeâ€ because the evidence presented by the prosecution had been totally destroyed by the defence during cross-examination. This fact was even conceded in open court by the prosecution.
â€œIt is as clear as daylight that a miscarriage of justice has been wrought, because though several persons were charged with the same allegations, only one person, was found guilty of such charges and others were declared innocent.
Ibori is saying this because only his sister, among the three Ibori associates that faced trial, has so far been found guilty of the same charges over which others were freed.
Yet, no extra jot of evidence was brought against her.
â€œIt is a fact that she was the only one that exercised her right of not giving evidence during the trial.
Her legal team had decided that the prosecutionâ€™s case against her was so weak that there was no need whatsoever for her to take the witness stand.
Ibori recalls for the record that his sister, Mrs. Christine Ibori-Ibie, Ms. Udoamaka Okoronkwo and Ms. Adebimpe Pogoson were faced with the same money laundering charges of counts one to four during the trial.
â€œThe charges against the others were rightly dropped for want of evidence. The rest charges against Mrs. Ibie were mortgage-related. But in continuation of the political persecution against Ibori, his sister has now been found guilty where others were rightly found innocent.
To Ibori, this is a clear notice that every member of his family is under the same political attack that has been buffeting him, and that the rules would be bent to do his family members in for all the accused should have been declared innocent.â€