BY IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI
ABUJA-THE Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Thursday, docked the
Former Governor of Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva, before Justice Ahmed Ramat Mohammed of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja over his alleged involvement in an N19.2billion fraud.
It insisted that the fraud was perpetuated between 2009 and 2012 when Sylva held sway as governor.
The three companies, Marlin Maritime Ltd, Eat Catering Services Ltd, and Haloween- Blue Construction & Logistics Ltd, were also joined as defendants in the suit.
Meanwhile, the embattled ex-governor who mounted the dock alongside one of his alleged accomplice in the fraud, Mr. Gbenga S. Balogun, however could not enter his plea owing to the absence of two other accused persons in the matter, Mr. Francis Okokuro and Mr. Samuel Ogbuku in court yesterday.
Consequently, the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Adegbite Adeniyi, urged the court to issue a bench warrant against them.
“My lord the two accused persons are not in court today, and no satisfactory explanation has been offered as to why they are not in court. I will therefore be urging your lordship to issue a bench warrant against them”, Adeniyi pleaded.
However, his application was vehemently opposed by Sylva’s lawyer, Mr. Isreal Olorundare, SAN, who insisted that the court must firstly determine his motion challenging the competence of the 42-count criminal charge that was preferred against his client by the anti-graft agency.
Olorundare, SAN, told the court that there was also a motion challenging the legal standing of the chief prosecutor in the matter Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, who he said should not be allowed to handle the matter for the EFCC.
“The motion my lord is to the effect that he should be disqualified from prosecuting before this court over professional misconduct. Until that application is determined, no valid application can be made for a bench warrant against any of the accused persons. Except the application seeking to oust Mr. Rotimi Jacobs is determined, this trial cannot proceed”, Sylva’s lawyer argued.
He placed reliance on the decided case law in the AGF vs ICAN, 2002, 10 NWLR, part 776, to insist that neither Mr. Jacobs, SAN, nor any lawyer from his chamber would have the locus to appear for the complainant or make any application at all before the court.
Meantime, counsel to the 2nd accused person, Mr James Odiba, apologised for the absence of his client in court yesterday, saying he took ill during the weekend and was rushed to a hospital in Senegal.
“My lord we were reliably informed by his son, Mr. Rectitude Okokuro that his father who had planned to be here today, took ill over the weekend and was taken to Senegal. Due to the fact that the treatment is taking place outside the country, we could not produce the medical report”.
Odiba further argued that it was Mr. Jacobs that was personally issued the Fiat to prosecute the matter, contending that he could not transfer such fiat to any other counsel in his chambers.
He therefore argued that Adeniyi was incompetent to apply for a bench warrant against his client.
Similarly, counsel to the 4th accused, Mr Ajayi Olowo, while informing the court that his client was unable to attend the proceeding considering that he was facing another criminal trial before a court
in Yenegoa, Bayelsa state, also challenged the application for a bench warrant.
Besides, Olowo, said he had on November 29, 2013, filed a preliminary objection challenging the jurisdiction of the court to entertain the charge before it.
In his own reaction, counsel to the 5th accused, Mr. Benson Ibezim, relied on the provision of section 35(5) of the 1999 constitution and argued that the court had already violated the fundamental rights of the accused persons by compelling them to enter the dock yesterday despite that they have not been duly arraigned over the charge against them.
He maintained that technically, the accused persons were not yet before the court since they have not pleaded to any charge.
Ruling on the matter yesterday, Justice Ahmed Mohammed, ordered that a criminal summon should be issued against the two accused persons who were absent in court yesterday.
“As far as this court is concerned, there is a charge brought against the accused person and they are expected to be in court at all times. There is no such position of the law known to this court that an
accused person who is challenging the process before the court or jurisdiction should not appear in court.
“Until the court takes decision disqualifying the prosecuting counsel, he cannot be prevented from making applications. It is my view that all the accused persons must always be in court, notwithstanding the pending applications.
“However, in view of the explanation by counsel to the absent accused persons, I will refrain from issuing a bench warrant against them. I however order that criminal summons be issued on the 2nd and 4th accused persons to appear on the next adjourned date.
“This case is hereby adjourned to October 8 for hearing of all the pending applications”, the judge ruled.
It will be recalled that the matter which firstly came up on December 3, 2013, has suffered four adjournments on technical grounds.
Aside their contention that the charge ought to have been filed in Bayelsa state where the alleged fraud was committed, the 3rd accused person, Balogun, through his lawyer, Ochu Chukwuma, accused EFCC lawyer, Mr acobs, SAN, of breaching the professional conduct for legal practitioners.
In a motion dated March 17 and filed pursuant to rules 15(1) (2) (3) of the rules of professional conduct for legal practitioners 2007, Balogun, alleged that Rotimi, misdirected the EFCC to seek before another high court, the forfeiture of a property at plot 1181, Thaba Tseka Crescent, off IBB Way,British Village, Wuse II, Abuja, belonging to Marlin Maritime Ltd, knowing that same property was already a matter in dispute before the appeal court in Abuja.
It was his contention that Rotimi, knowing fully well that the same subject matter was already decided by the federal high court in Abuja, still deceived the EFCC into making the same prayers before the same court.
He therefore sought for, “An order of the court, declining jurisdiction to entertain the ex-parte application of the complainant dated March 10, 2014 with suit no. FHC/ABJ/CS/188/14, as the court is functus officio.”
In an affidavit he deposed before the court, the accused person averred: “That I know of a fact that the said properties which the complainant through their counsel seeks their attachment and forfeiture in their new application of March 10, 2014 with suit no FHC/ABJ/CS/188/14, are the same properties which are the subject of pending appeal at the Court of Appeal”.
Nevertheless, Rotimi had since explained to the court that he was not aware of the previous ruling of the high court, insisting that it was his junior in the chamber that filed the said forfeiture application.