By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—An Abuja High Court sitting at Jabi, yesterday, fixed July 5 for the Federal Government to re-arraign former Chairman of then House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy Probe, Mr. Farouk Lawal, on an amended three-count bribery charge.
Lawal will be docked before trial Justice Yusuf Halilu, over allegations that he received bribe from Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd, Femi Otedola, as an inducement to remove the name of his company from reports of the House of Reps Ad-hoc committee on monitoring of fuel subsidy regime.
Justice Halilu will be the fourth judge to preside over trial of the erstwhile lawmaker, who was initially arraigned in 2012.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, had alleged that Lawal and Secretary of the Committee, Mr. Boniface Emenalo, demanded an aggregate sum of $3 million, with a view to ensuring that Otedola’s company escaped prosecution.
Lawal was said to have pocketed $620,000 as part payment for the illegal deal.
Nevertheless, the anti-graft agency later amended the charge and converted Emenalo to a prosecution witness.
Emenalo had earlier given his evidence-in-chief before Justice Angela Otaluka of an Abuja High Court at Lugbe.
Justice Otaluka was, however, directed to hands-off the case by Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello, following a petition by Lawal, accusing her of being biased.
The defendant had equally levelled the same allegation against the second trial judge in the matter, Justice Adebukola Banjoko of FCT High Court at Gudu.
Justice Banjoko withdrew from the case on November 18, 2014, after Lawal, in a petition he sent to the CJ, insisted that the judge was close to Otedola who was billed to testify against him.
He insisted that the Judge was likely to manifest bias against him since she was a family friend to the proposed witness.
The ICPC had earlier produced four out of its five proposed witnesses to testify against the defendant, with Otedola scheduled to mount the witness box before the matter was withdrawn from Justice Otaluka.
The first trial Judge, Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi of the FCT High Court at Maitama stepped down from the case after he was elevated to the Court of Appeal bench.
ICPC lawyer, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN, had equally petitioned the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, accusing Lawal of using frivolous allegations to stall his trial.
Awomolo, SAN, in his letter that was received by the AGF on June 8, 2017, stressed that Lawal had become “notorious for making undeserved allegation when he feels he is likely to lose”.
The prosecution decried that the case was always transferred by the CJ who it said never gave it opportunity to make input with a view to drawing his attention to “antecedents of the defendant and the damage to the case of the prosecution”.
Stressing that every transfer implied the commencement of fresh trial before a new Judge, ICPC, decried that the developments had been “very frustrating, discouraging and oppressive on the prosecution”.
Lawal had in his latest petition dated March 21, urged the Chief Judge to disqualify Justice Otaluka who he said had personal interest, from him trial.
Lawal’s complaints were mainly the alleged refusal of Justice Otaluka to adjourn the trial on different occasions to enable his lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, to handle his defence.
“In my view of the harsh and unfair manner, as well as the apparent and consistent prejudice exhibited by the judge in handling my case, especially by her refusal to grant me an adjournment, so that I will be represented by a counsel of my own choice, and her expression that she must quickly conclude my case, leaves me with no doubt that she has a mindset to hurriedly convict me at all cost for reasons best known to her”, Lawal added.
The prosecution had earlier tendered a video clip that showed Lawal collecting a parcel from Otedola.
The video was presented before trial Justice Otaluka by the Department of State Service, DSS, through its Principal Officer in charge of Technical Operations, Mr. David Ojataha.
On the directive of the Judge, the video which lasted for about three minutes, was played in the open court by the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Awomolo, SAN.
According to Awomolo: “My lord the video I just played are those of Mr. Femi Otedola and Hon. Farouq Lawal, where there was an exchange of parcel at Otedola’s house in Aso drive, Abuja”.
In his evidence-in-chief, Mr. Ojataha told the court that he was saddled with the responsibility of recording the video by the DSS owing to his background as an Electronic and Telecommunication Engineer.
However, Lawal’s lawyer, Chief Ozekhome, SAN, while cross-examining the witness, said that the device used in playing the CD had no imprint of time and event in the video.
Ozekhome consequently contended that there was nothing to show that what the defendant collected from Otedola was bribe money.
Lawal’s lawyer equally insisted that there was also nothing in the video to suggest that bribery was discussed because such words like “bribe” was not heard in the video.
ICPC alleged that Lawal acted contrary to section 17 (1) (a), section 8(1) (a) (b) (ii), and section 23 (i) of the Corrupt practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000 and punishable under section 8 (1) 17 (1) and 23(3) of the same Act.
Emenalo who testified as the PW-1, earlier gave reasons why he accepted $100,000 from Otedola.
He told the court that he took the money to expose Otedola’s move to compromise members of the subsidy committee.
Emenalo said that he collected the $100,000 bribe money from Otedola in $100 bills.
He told the court that the first meeting he had with Otedola was on Sunday, April 22, 2012, with a follow-up meeting between them on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at the oil mogul’s Abuja residence at Aso Drive, Maitama.
He further told the court that he subsequently handed the money over to Lawan as exhibit.
Though Emenalo denied allegation that he received $20,000 bribe from Otedola during their first meeting, he admitted that it was during the second meeting that Otedola gave him the $100,000.