By Emma Amaize, Godwin Oghre & Perez Brisibe
A British High Court, the Royal Court of Justice, Queens Bench Division, Court 1, sitting in London, yesterday, ordered the immediate release of former Delta State governor, Chief James Ibori, from prison, saying the move to hold him after serving out his sentence was illegal.
Ibori breathed the air of freedom at about noon, after the UK court dismissed a detention warrant lodged by the Home Office to keep him in custody, pending the conclusion of the assets confiscation trial arising from the original case launched against him.
Ibori had been due for freedom on Tuesday, December 20, 2016, after spending six and half years in prison before the fresh legal moves by the Home Office.
Though Justice Juliet May, who heard the case for further detention, dismissed the case by the Home Office, he nevertheless ruled that Ibori could remain in the United Kingdom until the end of January when the deportation case would be heard.
The entanglements, nonetheless, news of Ibori’s freedom sparked jubilation among his supporters in several parts of Delta State. In his home town, Oghara, the excitement turned into a carnival as supporters took to the streets dancing.
One of Ibori’s lawyers present in court said “the UK’s Home Office in a last minute bid, tried to block his release on the premise that his assets confiscation hearing remained inconclusive.” The trial pertains to efforts to confiscate £18m (eighteen million pounds) traced to Ibori by the Home Office.
This prompted Ibori’s lawyers to file an emergency hearing suit challenging the decision of the Home Office not to release him and seeking the immediate release of the frontline Nigerian politician.
The lawyers won an immediate reprieve when the presiding judge, Justice May, ordered his immediate release.
Ibori’s lawyers explained to the judge that there were no grounds in law under which Ibori could be detained, insisting that the refusal of the Secretary of State was unlawful.
But the prosecution team urged the judge not to release him since the confiscation hearing against him was still pending.
But the defence counsel countered that the law demanded the release or deportation of anyone who had finished serving his term.
After listening to both parties, Justice May ordered the immediate release of Ibori from prison.
Ruling yesterday, presiding Judge, Justice May, who heard the emergency appeal filed by Ibori to enforce his rights, refused the Home Office’s request to further hold him in prison and ordered his immediate release without conditions
Speaking exclusively to Vanguard on the telephone outside the court immediately after the ruling, one of Ibori’s lawyers, Jonathan Chike Epelle, said: “The Home Office’s position was totally unreasonable and was not in accordance with any known provision of prison, immigration or confiscation law.
“We are grateful that the judge was able to see the true position and acted with complete fairness and experience.”
Meanwhile, the development sparked wild jubilation in several sections of Delta State.
His kinsmen at Oghara and other Urhobo communities in the state, however, formed a carnival procession as they lined up on the major streets dancing.
When Vanguard visited Oghara, Mosogar, Jesse, Sapele and other neighbouring communities, joyful residents were seen chanting solidarity songs in honour of the former governor, describing him as, “The hero of our time”, “The resource control guru” and “Liberator of the oppressed, who paid the price for the sake of his people.”
One of Ibori’s close associates, Chief Ighoyota Amori, who served as commissioner for education in Ibori’s administration and subsequently as political adviser to Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, said: “Our joy knows no bounds as the entire Urhobo nation, Deltans, and the whole country await his triumphant return to his fatherland.
“No matter how long a road is, it must have an end. The long wait and expectation have come to a positive end. To God, we give all the glory. There is no doubt that his incarceration/imprisonment in almost eight years now created a big political vacuum, which will now be filled by his triumphant return to his fatherland.”
Another Ibori associate, Chief Ayiri Emami, said: “The release of Ibori is long awaited by all Nigerians. My support for him is not about supporting corruption, but that his incarceration was political and the sponsors were corruption personified.”
Also speaking to Vanguard, Chairman of Delta State Association of Past Local Government Legislators, Hon. Clement Olojoba, said: “Today (yesterday) that Chief Ibori is released is like a festival for all Urhobo people at home and in Diaspora.
“There is celebration all over the world now and we have all heaved sigh of relief. Urhobo nation and Delta State as whole are blessed once again.”
Former Minister of Information, Prof. Sam Oyovbaire on his part, said: “Seriously speaking, all of us Deltans and Niger Deltans are highly pleased about his release, because the circumstances surrounding how he was hounded is very bad.
“Personally, I am highly pleased that he has withstood all the harassment and did that in good health and while in prison, he never lost touch with his home base,” he added.
Chief of Staff to the Delta State governor, Tam Brisibe, stated: “Obviously, I am happy that he has been released and we are looking forward to his coming to Delta State.”
Former DESOPADEC Commissioner, Dr. Henry Ofa, who spoke to our reporter on the phone, said: “As am talking to you right now, we are at the residence of the chairman of Ethiope East and we are already celebrating his release and give God the glory.”
Former General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Chief Frank Kokori, however, spoke differently, blaming the former Delta State governor as one of the persons that corrupted the nation’s democracy as he charged him to lay low, following his freedom.
“We thank God for his life, but he was one of those that destroyed INEC and the judiciary, and that is why Delta is the place where people who handle electoral matters go back as billionaires,” as he urged the former governor to work for a better Delta State.