By IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI, Abuja
Despite their passionate plea for clemency, an Abuja high court, yesterday, ordered the immediate remand of the erstwhile Chairman and Secretary of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy probe, Farouk Lawan and Boniface Emenalo in prison custody.
The court presided over by Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi ordered the accused lawmakers to be remanded for one week in Kuje Prisons, Abuja, pending the determination of their bail application on February 8.
The order was made shortly after the duo pleaded not guilty to a seven-count criminal charge preferred against them by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC.
Specifically, the lawmakers were accused of demanding and collecting bribe from the Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Femi Otedola, as an inducement to remove the name of his company from the report of the Ad-hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy regime.
They were said to have collected an aggregate sum of $3million, with a view to ensure that Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd escaped prosecution even though the committee had ab-initio found it culpable in the fuel subsidy fraud, an offence that was contrary ‘’to Sections 17 (1) (a); 8(1) (a) (b) (ii), and 23 (i) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 8 (1) 17 (1) and 23(3) of the same Act.
Besides, the commission further alleged that Emenalo, while being a public officer, an Assistant Director and Clerk of the Committee on Education of the House of Representatives sometime in April 2012, and while acting as the Secretary of the Ad-Hoc Committee, was offered gratification by Otedola but failed to report the offer to any officer of the ICPC or any police officer.
Whereas both accused persons were charged together in the first count of the charge, however, count two, three and four were preferred against Farouk alone just as count five, six seven 6 were preferred against Emenalo alone.
Meanwhile, shortly after they took their turns to plead their innocence of the crime, Counsel to the ICPC, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, implored the court to remand them in prison custody pending their trial.
Awomolo told the court that the accused persons served him with their consolidated bail application yesterday morning, adding that he had anticipated such move and prepared legal authorities he said would guide the court into deciding that it was in the interest of justice for the duo to be remanded in prison.
Relying on Section 8, 10, 17 and 23 of the ICPC Act 2000 and the decided case-law in Asari Dokubo Versus Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2007, 12 NWLR, he said: “We are opposing the application for bail and urge your lordship to refuse it.
The accused persons are charged with an offence punishable by two to seven years imprisonment and therefore not ordinarily bailable. An application for bail is an application in equity which requires my Lord to exercise your discretion judicially and judiciously.
‘’The principles that guide the court in granting bail have been well enunciated in the case of Bamaiyi Versus the State, 2001, the nature and gravity of the offence and the likelihood of the accused committing another offence while on bail…
“The offence by which the accused persons are standing trial is the case of corruption by a public officer at the highest level, particularly in the legislative arm. The accussed persons, in the affidavit did not give an undertaking that if they go back to the National Assembly, they will not be members of another committee and that they will not demand or obtain bribe in the discharge of their official duty.
“Your Lordship needs to be assured that what prompted them to demand $3million will not also prompt them to demand $10million.The accused persons were part of the making of the ICPC Act; they knew the intention of the lawmakers and deliberately violated the law, on that ground alone, I urge my lord to deny them bail.”
Earlier, the accused persons had through their counsels, Chief Ricky Tarfa, SAN, and Chief Mike Ozokhome, begged the court to either grant them bail on self recognition on liberal terms.
Moving the motion for their bail dated February 1, and filed pursuant to section 35, 36 (5) of the 1999 constitution as amended, and section 340 and 341(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, Chief Tarfa urged the court to take cognizance of the fact that the first accused, Farouk, had in the course of investigation into the matter, reported to the Police on 37 different occasions, noting that the duo never violated the administrative bail given them by the police.
“The first accused has had cause to travel out more than four times since the commencement of the investigation, the second accused has had cause to travel to the USA more than two times since then. My Lord, the first accused has been a full time member of the House since 1999; he is also a member of the ECOWAS parliament and has been a member for the last 12 years.
“He is one of the founding members of the said ECOWAS parliament and he is presently chairing the committee on Administration of Finance.”
Tarfa then relied on decided case-law in Owudalu Versus the State, 2008, AFWLR, and Ebute & Others Versus the State, 1994, 8-NWLR, arguing that not only did the accused persons fail to abscond when they had the opportunities, they had voluntarily submitted themselves to the police for investigation.
“The accused persons are willing and ready to face their trial. My Lord should also take cognizance of their status and positions in the society and grant them bail on self recognition. The constitution says they should be considered innocent until proven guilty,” he insisted.
In his short ruling, Justice Oniyangi, said he would need time to consider the application, saying the accused persons should be remanded in Kuje Prisons till February 8, when the case would come up.
The number two of the charge against them read: “That you Hon. Farouk Lawan (M) while being a member of the House of Representatives and chairman of Ad-hoc committee on Monitoring of fuel subsidy regime sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory under the jurisdiction of this honourable court did while acting in the course of your official duty corruptly obtained $500,000 for yourself from Mr. Femi Otedola, chairman Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd as an inducement to remove the name of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd from the report of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy regime, thereby committing an offence contrary to Section 17 (1) of the Corrupt practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 17 (1) of the same Act.
”That you Mr. Emenalo Boniface (M) while being a public officer, an Assistant Director and Secretary of the House of Representatives’ Ad-hoc Committee on Monitoring of Fuel Subsidy Regime sometimes in April 2012 or thereabout at Abuja within the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, under the jurisdiction of this honourable court did while acting in the course of your official duty as Secretary…corruptly asked for $3,000,000 for yourself from Mr. Femi Otedola, and thereby committing an offence contrary to Section 8 (1) (b) (ii) of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 23 (3) of the same Act.”
Shortly after the Farouk Lawan- led panel released its report that exposed astronomical fraud perpetuated by various companies under the subsidy regime, Mr Femi Otedola, released an audio tape with a view to proving that the probe panel demanded cash-for-clearance from him.
Otedola specifically accused Lawan of demanding for $3million to exonerate his company, emphasizing that the lawmaker even went to the extent of stuffing monies in his cap on one of the occasions he came to receive bribe on behalf of the panel.
However, Lawan, through his lawyer, Chief Mike Ozokhome, SAN, refuted the allegation that he stuffed money in his cap, stressing that contrary to insinuation that he travelled to Lagos to collect the bribe as alleged, he only received money from Otedola on two separate occasions at his room at Protea Hotel, Apoin Abuja and at Otedola’s house at Aso Drive Asokoro also in Abuja.
Describing the audio tape which was released to media houses as “a devilish caricature”, Lawan then urged Nigerians to give him the benefit of doubt, insisting that he would not rest until he proved that the primary intention why he collected the money was to uncover the level of corruption within the oil sector of the Nigerian economy.
In a bid to further puncture the probe report, Otedola alongside his company, Zenon Oil and Gas, filed a suit before the High Court, seeking N250billion against Farouk and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, as exemplary damages for alleged oppressive and arbitrary actions allegedly meted against him.