By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA—The Supreme Court, yesterday, gave Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, the nod to continue the trial of former Managing Director of the defunct Bank PHB Plc, Mr. Francis Atuche, and his wife, Elizabeth, over allegation that they stole N25.7 billion belonging to the bank.
In a unanimous judgment, a five-man panel of justice of the apex court, led by Justice Dattijo Muhammad, voided a Court of Appeal order that directed the Chief Judge of Lagos State to re-assign the case to a new judge.
Justices of the apex court took turns to lambast the appellate court for making an order they described as “highly perverse.”
It will be recalled that the EFCC had in 2011, arraigned Atuche, his wife and the then Financial Officer of the moribund Bank PHB Plc (now Keystone Bank), Mr. Ugo Anyanwu, before Justice Lateefa Okunnu of the Lagos State High Court over the alleged fraud.
However, following an appeal the defendants filed in 2014 to challenge their trial, the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, in a judgment it delivered in September 2016, ordered Justice Okunnu to hands off the trial.
Though the appellate court declined to quash the charges, it, however, directed the Chief Judge of Lagos State to re-assign the case to another judge.
Meanwhile, when the case was called up for hearing, yesterday, counsel to the EFCC, Mr. Kemi Pinheiro, SAN, told the apex court that the appellate court had in a subsequent ruling on the case, curiously ordered that Atuche and his wife’s trial be handled by another new judge other than either Justice Okunnu or Lawal-Akapo.
Pinheiro decried that the decision of the apellate court greatly hampered the expeditious conclusion of the trial.
After listening to the EFCC lawyer, the apex court panel unanimously agreed that the lower court’s decisions on the matter was “perverse” and, therefore, ought to be set-aside.
According to Justice Ejembi Eko who prepared and read the lead judgment of the apex court, the order which the Court of Appeal made on September 23, 2016, for the remittance of case to the Lagos State CJ for the purpose of re-assigning it to another judge, was not aimed to serve the interest of justice.
The apex court noted that the lower court did not adduce any reason why it disqualified the trial judge that took plea of the defendants in the first instance.
Justice Eko stressed that such order, being “a contentious one”, required the lower court to give reasons why Justice Okunnu should not be allowed to continue with the trial.
The apex court panel equally noted that neither Justice Okunnu nor Justice Lawal-Akapo were accused of any wrongdoing by any of the parties to the case to warrant the transfer of the matter to a new judge.
Consequently, it directed that the case should be returned to Justice Okunnu for continuation of trial of the defendants.
Aside the head of the panel, other Justices of the apex court that concured with the lead verdict were Justices Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Paul Galinje and Iyang Okoro.