By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—-The Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, on Monday, shifted hearing on the appeal that was lodged by the detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu, till May 5.
A three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court led by Justice Abdul Aboki adjourned the matter after it was discovered that it was not listed for hearing in the court’s cause list.
Following insistence by Kanu’s lawyer, Chief Chuks Muoma, SAN, that it was the appellate court itself that originally fixed April 25 to hear the matter, Justice Aboki, promised that the court would look into the matter on the next adjourned date.
Kanu, alongside two other pro-Biafra agitators, David Nwawusi and Benjamin Madubugwu, had gone before the appellate court to challenge what they termed “strange procedure” adopted in their trial.
Already, the trio who are answering to a six-count treason charge, has urged the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja to stay further hearing on the case against them, pending the determination of their consolidated appeal.
Specifically, they alleged bias against trial Justice John Tsoho who not only declined to quash the charge against them, but also permitted the prosecution to shield the identity of eight witnesses billed to testify in the matter.
The Judge equally refused to discharge and acquit the three defendants as it was prayed to do under section 351(1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
The defendants are contending before the appellate court that trial Justice Tsoho erred in law “when having refused the application for the witnesses of the prosecution to testified behind screens, or masked” on February 19, 2016, “suddenly varied the said order in the ruling delivered on March 7, 2016, on a mere oral application by the respondent”.
They noted that the variation order was made on the basis of a mere oral application by the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, Mr. Mohammed Diri.
The DPP had informed the court that witnesses scheduled to testify against Kanu and the others, said they would not appear unless they were allowed to wear masks or their identities shielded from both lawyers and people observing the proceeding.
“My lord, this is because they are already receiving threats from associates of the defendants that they will be dealt with. The witnesses said they love their lives and requested that their identities be shielded from people who are coming to witness the proceeding”, Diri added.
He said DSS operatives also billed to testify in the matter, made similar request on the basis that they are investigating terrorism cases and would not want their identities exposed.
Sequel to his application, Justice Tsoho gave an order permitting the witnesses to testify behind a screen.
The judge insisted that the decision did not amount to a variation of a previous ruling that prohibited the witnesses from appearing in mask.
The defendants had on February 9, opposed FG’s application for secret trial, even as they queried the propriety of the court allowing ”masquerades” to testify against them.
Though Justice Tsoho maintained that the order he made on Monday was in tandem with the ruling of February 9, the defence lawyer, Muoma, SAN, went on appeal to challenge the revised order for the identities of the witnesses to be protected.
Muoma, SAN, argued that the trial court had become functus-officio on the matter, having earlier ruled on the previous application by the prosecution.
It was his argument that FG ought to have appealed against that the ruling instead of re-approaching the same court with a similar application.
He is praying the appellate court to direct the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to transfer their case to another Judge for trial.
Nevertheless, FG, in a counter-affidavit it filed before the appellate court, sought the dismissal of the appeal which it said lacked merit.
The DPP who endorsed the appeal, argued that the March 7 order of the high court did not amount to a variation of the previous order of the court.
FG insisted that Kanu and the others were never denied fair-hearing by Justice Tsoho to warrant re-assignment of the case-file to another Judge.
Besides, it accused the defendants of attempting to use frivolous interlocutory appeals to delay their trial.
Kanu who was hitherto the Director of Radio Biafra and Television, has been in detention since October 14, 2015, when he was arrested by security operatives upon his arrival to Nigeria from his base in the United Kingdom.
The defendants were alleged to have committed treasonable felony, an offence punishable under Section 41(C) of the Criminal Code Act, CAP C38 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria.
FG alleged that they were the ones managing the affairs of the IPOB which it described as “an unlawful society”.
Kanu was alleged to have illegally smuggled radio transmitters into Nigeria, which he used to disseminate “hate broadcasts”, encouraging the “secession of the Republic ofBiafra”, from Nigeria.
The accused persons however pleaded not guilty to the charge on January 20, even as the court ordered their remand at Kuje prison in Abuja.