Justice Muslim Hassan of a Federal High Court on Thursday in Lagos disqualified himself from the trial of a former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, charged with N4.6 billion money laundering.
Fani-Kayode is charged alongside a former Minister of State for Finance, Nenadi Usman, a former National Chairman of the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON), Yusuf Danjuma as well as a company — Jointrust Dimensions Nigeria Ltd.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had slammed on the accused a 17-count charge bordering on N4.6 million money laundering.
They all pleaded not guilty.
At the resumed hearing of the case on Thursday, Justice Hassan, in a ruling, withdrew from the criminal trial of the accused.
His withdrawal followed an application by counsel to Fani-Kayode, Mr Norrison Quakers (SAN), urging the judge to step aside from hearing the suit.
Recalling the arguments of both defence and prosecuting counsel for and against the application to recuse, the judge held that although counsel had not been able to show or prove any element of bias, it would serve the interest of justice for him to withdraw from the suit.
He said: “It will serve the interest of justice for me to withdraw from this suit.’’
The judge held that the case file would be returned to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ndahi Auta, for reassignment to another judge.
He consequently directed the accused to await further directives from the Chief Judge.
At the last adjournment in February, counsel to Fani-Kayode, Quakers, had argued an application before the court asking the judge to recuse from the trial of the accused.
Quakers contended that Justice Hassan, who worked as Head of Legal Services at the EFCC before his appointment as a judge, signed the money laundering charges for which Fani-Kayode was previously prosecuted some years back.
He added that Fani-Kayode was, however, discharged and acquitted by Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumobia on July 1, 2015.
He also argued that while judges ought to operate as if they were blindfolded, the blindfold was sometimes removed based on primordial sentiments.
On the other hand, counsel to Usman, Mr Abiodun Owonikoko (SAN) also argued his application before the court, seeking a severance of the criminal charge.
Owonikoko had urged the court to allow Usman to be tried separately from Fani-Kayode as well as for her trial to be transferred from Lagos to Abuja for convenience.
He hinged his application on Usman’s health condition, as she resided in Abuja and had to travel to Lagos each time the case came up, spending at least three days on each occasion.
He, therefore, urged the court to grant his application.
Opposing the applications, the prosecutor, Mr Rotimi Oyedepo, argued that the Chief Judge could not exercise his powers to transfer a case where the prosecution had called its first witness.
Besides, Oyedepo argued that 13 of the listed 17 witnesses live in Lagos.
Moreso in opposing the application by Fani-Kayode, Oyedepo argued that although Justice Hassan signed the charges as head of EFCC’s legal department, the case was prepared and prosecuted by an external counsel, Mr Festus Keyamo.
He said that the judge did not feature in the trial of Fani-Kayode at any time, adding that nothing had been placed before the court to justify likelihood of bias.
Oyedepo argued that it was not for any party to decide the judge that would adjudicate on his case, and urged the court to dismiss the application.
The accused were alleged to have committed the offences between January and March 2015.
On counts one to seven, they were alleged to have unlawfully retained over N3.8 billion which they reasonably ought to have known formed part of the proceeds of an unlawful act of stealing and corruption.
On counts 8 to 14, the accused were alleged to have unlawfully used over N970 million which they reasonably ought to have known formed part of an unlawful act of corruption.
Meanwhile o n counts 15 to 17, Fani-Kayode and one Olubode Oke, who is said to be at large, were alleged to have made cash payments of about N30 million in excess of the amount allowed by law without going through a financial institution.
Besides, Fani-Kayode was accused of making payments to one Paste Poster Co (PPC) of No. 125, Lewis St., Lagos, in excess of amounts allowed by law.
The offences contravened the provisions of Sections 15 (3) (4), 16 (2) (b), and 16 (5) of the Money laundering (Prohibition) (Amendment) Act, 2012.