……….declines defendants’ plea for bail
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—–The Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja, on Wednesday, dismissed the appeal that was lodged before it by the detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu.
Kanu and 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 before the Federal High Court in Abuja.
The trio who are answering to a six-count treason charge the federal government preferred against them, in their consolidated appeal, alleged bias against trial Justice John Tsoho who not only declined to grant them bail, but also permitted the prosecution to shield the identity of eight witnesses billed to testify in the matter.
Justice Tsoho had equally rejected application praying him to discharge and acquit the three defendants in line with section 351(1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
Meantime, in a unanimous judgment on Wednesday, a three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court led by Justice Abdul Aboki, dismissed th defendants’ appeal as “grossly lacking in merit”.
The appellate court further declined to order the release of the defendants on bail on the premise that allegations against them are “grievous and serious”.
Justice Aboki who read the lead judgment, said it was not in doubt the 1st defendant, Kanu, has dual citizenship.
He said Kanu’s possession of both Nigerian and British passports increased the likelihood that he could jump bail if released from detention.
On the procedure adopted by the trial court, the appeal court panel maintained that Justice Tsoho had the discretion to decide how the proceeding should be conducted.
“The lower court has the power to exercise its discretion on the matter and the exercise of such discretion by the trial judge did not amount to denial of fair hearing to the defendants.
“The issues are resolved against the appellants. Ruling of the trial court is hereby upheld”, the appellate court held.
Basically, Kanu and his co-defendants, through their lawyer Chief Chuks Muoma, SAN, argued 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 maintained that the variation order was made on the basis of a mere oral application by the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, Mohammed Diri, who had informed the trial court that witnesses scheduled to testify against the defendants 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 told the court.
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.
Following his application, Justice Tsoho gave an order permitting the witnesses to testify behind a screen, stressing that the decision did not amount to a variation of a previous ruling that prohibited the witnesses from appearing in mask.
The three defendants had earlier 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 subsequent order he made in respect of the trial was in tandem with his ruling on February 9 that rejected secret trial of the defendants, the defence lawyer, Muoma, SAN, yesterday, urged the appellate court to set aside “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 the initial ruling instead of re-approaching the same court with a similar application.
He prayed the appellate court to direct the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to transfer their case-file 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 argued that the March 7 order of the high court did not amount to a variation of the February 9 ruling.
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. It opposed their request to be released on bail.
Besides, FG 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 of Biafra”, 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.