BY Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA— Reprieve came the way of the embattled former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole and his erstwhile deputy, Usman Bayero Nafada, as they were Wednesday released on bail by an Abuja High Court sitting at Apo.
The court specifically ordered the duo to deposit N50 million each and one surety each in like sum, stressing that the said surety must be a civil servant not below the level of a Permanent Secretary who must be resident within the Federal Capital Territory.
Justice Suleiman Belgore who released them on bail after he had dismissed a counter-affidavit that was filed by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, in opposition to their consolidated bail applications, ordered the anti-graft agency to retain the diplomatic and official passports of the former Speaker and his deputy, saying they should remain in custody pending when all the conditions are perfected.
Meanwhile, the accused persons are protesting the bail terms that were handed to them by the trial High Court yesterday, saying it was too stringent.
Immediately the trial judge finished delivering his ruling yesterday, the accused persons through their counsel, Chief Michael Fashanu, SAN, pleaded for a variation of the bail condition, insisting that it may be herculean for them to get a Permanent Secretary that would be willing to stick-out his or her neck to stand surety in the matter.
Counsel to the accused persons contended that asking them to produce such caliber of civil servants would amount to technically denying his clients bail, even as he pleaded with the court to rather request for a public officer of a particular range instead of tying it to the position of a Permanent Secretary.
Following the refusal of the trial Judge to accede to the oral plea for variation, the accused persons who were subsequently whisked back to their detention cell by operatives of the anti-graft commission, said they would re-approach the court with a formal application to that effect.
The ruling was delivered on a day both the EFCC and the accused persons adduced reasons why the discretion of the High Court should sway to their favour.
Whereas the anti-graft agency urged the court to consider the weight of the charge against the former speaker and his deputy and refuse them bail, the accused persons on the other hand, pleaded the trial judge to grant them bail in self recognition, insisting that they would be available to face trial.
Nafada specifically implored the court to consider his failing heath condition and allow him to go home, maintaining that he was on Saturday June 11, involved in a fatal road accident which he said claimed seven lives.
The former speaker told the court that his present health situation warrants consistent medical attention, just as the 1st accused person, Bankole, urged the court to take cognizance of the fact that the Abuja division of the Federal High Court earlier granted him bail over a sister case that was instituted against him by the anti-graft agency.
Their submissions were vehemently opposed by EFCC lawyer, Keyamo, who insisted that the onus was on the applicants to provide material evidence that the trial court could rely upon and grant them bail.
“My lord, it is not enough for the 2nd accused person to rely on health condition to move this court to grant him bail, he has failed to produce an admissible medical report or anything that could move your lordship to show sympathetic consideration to his application.
“We also urge your lordship to discountenance his submission as it relate to the purported accident he was involved in, there is neither a police report nor anything to corroborate the story.
“Most of the depositions in their affidavit for bail did not meet legal requirements capable of moving the court to exercise its discretion to their favour.
“Averments of the 1st accused that he has two children, aged parents, about his being a former speaker, holding honours of CFR, are not legal requirements for bail. I therefore urge your lordship to refuse this bail application in its entirety”, he argued.
After listening to their arguments, Justice Belgore, yesterday, stood-down the matter till 3pm when he eventually ruled on their consolidated bail applications.
The judge relied on the provisions of section 1(1), 6 (6b), 34(4), 36(4) (5) of the 1999 constitution and section 341(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code, CPC, to release the accused person on bail pending the hearing and determination of the substantive case against them.
Though the judge waved-aside the claims of the former deputy speaker that he was suffering deteriorating health condition, he maintained that denying them bail would amount to an infringement on their constitutional rights.
The judge said he was not persuaded by the submissions of the prosecuting counsel that the accused would interfere with ongoing investigations into other allegations of corruption against them, adding that he was not convinced that they would attempt to evade trial if released on bail.
EFCC earlier told the High Court that most of the witnesses it intend to call against the duo are serving members of the National Assembly, saying there was an imminent danger that they could be influenced by the accused persons.
According to the judge, “I have carefully and meticulously read the motion papers all over and I have equally given deep consideration to the reliefs sought therein, it is my view that this application is not complex.
“The issue is whether or not the accused persons are entitled to bail and this is where section 341(2) of the CPC must come to play.
“the case of Abiola Vs FRN which was reported in 1999, 4-NWLR, stressed that an accused must place material evidence that the court will consider before exercising its discretion in granting or refusing an application for bail.
“The prosecution has argued that the 1st accused severally evaded arrest but can we say from all seriousness that he indeed evaded arrest?, the answer is found in the counter-affidavit which enumerated how many attempts that were made before he was eventually arrested on June 5.
“Failure to honour an invitation cannot be seen as evading arrest as nothing suggests that at one point in time, he was seen and he ran away.
“It is the view of this court that the EFCC was not able to locate him initially and when he was eventually located, he was accordingly arrested and taken into custody. There is nothing to show that he engaged operatives of the agency in a fight neither is there an exhibit showing that he was at any time a wanted person.
“It is not disputed that the said invitation letters were sent to the clerk of the National Assembly and not to the accused person. I cannot see the temptation for the accused persons to abscond trial in considering their antecedents.
“There is no serious risk that they will jump bail and contention of the prosecution that they will interfere with ongoing investigation is unattainable as the accused persons in their affidavit maintained that investigations into the matter were already concluded.
“This deposition was not controverted by the prosecution, it is trite law that fact not challenged are deemed to be true. I am therefore inclined to hold that investigation have been completed and whether the accused persons will interfere with further investigations is of no moment before this court.
“More so, this is the first time that the accused persons have found themselves in this mess and there is no likelihood that they may commit same is released.
“The right to bail of an accused is constitutional, I found merit in this application and accordingly grant same” the judge ruled.
Hearing on the substantive case against them was yesterday adjourned till July 19.
The accused persons, who were arraigned by the anti-graft agency on Monday, are facing trial over their alleged complicity in a N40 billion loan scam.
They had pleaded not guilty to the entire 17-count criminal charge that was preferred against them by the EFCC.
EFCC specifically alleged that they breached public trust by agreeing to approve the allowances and ‘running costs’ of members of the 6th session of House of Representatives in violation of the approved remuneration package for political, public and judicial office holders by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission, as well as, the extant Revised Financial Regulations of the Federal Government of Nigeria, 2009, and thereby committed an offence contrary to section 97(1) of the Penal Code Act, Cap 532, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) 1990 and punishable under section 315 of the same Penal Code Act.
The anti-graft commission further alleged that the accused persons being entrusted with House of Representatives’ Account No. 00390070000018 with the United Bank of Africa, Plc and the Overhead Account of the House of Representatives with First Bank of Nigeria, Plc, properties of the Federal Government of Nigeria, dishonestly used the accounts to obtain loans totaling to about N40 billion.
The former speaker, who was previously arraigned on June 8, had already spent 9 days in EFCC custody.
It would be recalled that operatives of the commission re-arrested him on Monday shortly after he was granted bail by a Federal High Court in Abuja where he was docked ab-initio over another 16-count criminal charge bothering on contract inflation.
As at press time, the embattled former lawmakers were yet to perfect their bail conditions.