…says FG needs NJC’s approval to arrest, prosecute Judges
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Friday, struck out the 13-count criminal charge the Federal Government preferred against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court.
The court, in a ruling that was delivered by trial Justice John Tsoho, held that FG failed to fulfill the condition pecedent that is required before a serving judicial officer could be arrested or charged to court over corruption related offences.
Relying on a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in the case involving Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa who was also accused of engaging in acts of corruption, Justice Tsoho, maintained that FG ought to allow the National Judicial Council, NJC, to “appropriately scrutinize” allegations against judicial officers, before charging them to court.
“Any direct arrest and prosecution of a judicial officer by security agencies as in the present case should be declared a nullity”, the court held.
According to the court, it was not in dispute that Justice Ngwuta is a serving judicial officer, stressing that sections 152, 158 and Paragraph 21 Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution are clear and unambiguous to the effect that only the NJC has administrative and statutory powers to disciple judicial officers.
“No matter how incompetent the NJC may seem to the security agencies, its powers are constitutionally vested”, Justice Tsoho held, adding that such powers “cannot be switched or overrun under democracy”.
“This court is of the view that it will be tidier and safer that all kinds of offences against judicial officers must first pass through the NJC”.
He said the NJC should be allowed to “first consider cases involving judicial officers across all offences before the involvement of security agencies”.
Besides, the court noted that some of the charges against Ngwuta were vague.
“This court has difficulty seeing a clear distinction as to whether the alleged acts are within the scope of Applicant’s performance of his official function or outside the scope of offences within the rank of theft, arson or murder”.
The court said it was not persuaded by FG’s argument that the appellate court had in Nganjiwa’s case, held that judicial officers could be prosecuted for committing offences like theft, arson or murder, without recourse to the NJC.
It maintained that FG has no option than to report erring judicial officers to the NJC, pending the filling of lacunas in the constitution.
“It is the humble opinion of this court that condition precedents to the filing of the charge herein against the Applicant was not fulfilled.
“Consequently, the jurisdiction of this court to try same was not properly invoked. Therefore processes herein before this court is declared a nullity. The charge is struck out and the applicant discharged”, Justice Tsoho held.
Justice Ngwuta had through his lawyer, Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, prayed the court to quash charges against him which bordered on money laundering charge, age falsification, as well as his alleged possession of multiple international passports.
He argued that the court lacked the jurisdiction to hear the charge since his trial was not okayed by the NJC.
The embattled apex court jurist was docked before the high court on November 21, 2016, and later granted bail to the tune of N100million.
He was among eight superior court judges that were arrested after a sting operation the Department of State Service, DSS, conducted in October, 2016.
FG said the DSS had at the end of the search operation conducted at Ngwuta’s official residence, recovered several sums of cash, including the sum of Thirty-Five Million, Three Hundred and Fifty-Eight Thousand Naira (NGN35,358,000.00); Three Hundred and Nineteen Thousand, Five Hundred and Ninety- Six United States Dollars ($319,596.00).
As well as Twenty-Five Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifteen Pounds Sterling (GBP 25,915) and Two Hundred and Eighty Euros (EURO 280.00).
FG told the court that shortly after Ngwuta was granted administrative bail by the DSS, he quickly called the PW-1, one Mr. Linus Nwamba, to help him conceal some of the evidence against him, including N27million he hid in his bathroom at Abakaliki in Ebonyi State.
The prosecution told the court that the defendant equally removed three exotic cars from his residence in his home town.
It told the court that Nwamba initially hid the bag that contained the N27m cash at the residence of one Abraham Ezeani in Abakaliki, saying the Money “was subsequently dissipated by Mr Nwamba on the direct instructions of the defendant/applicant”.
It listed the three exotic cars that Ngwuta allegedly attempted to conceal, as a Hummer Jeep Sports Utility Vehicle, Wrangler Jeep Sports Utility Vehicle and a BMW 5 Series Sedan Vehicle which it said was quickly moved by the defendant to Clevero Hotel in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State.
FG said the properties which it maintained were derived from the proceeds of an unlawful act, were all recovered by investigators on November 11, following Nwamba’s arrest, weeks after the defendant had been released on administrative bail.
More so, FG alleged that Ngwuta was in possession of multiple international passports, which he allegedly used interchangeably to travel abroad, especially to Seychelles and the United Arab Emirate, UAE.
An operative of the DSS, Mr. Aminu Ndakpoto who testified as a prosecution witness in the matter, told the court that the defendant claimed that the funds that were found in his house, which were stashed inside bags, were proceeds of his palm oil and rice business.
He said Ngwuta equally admitted under interrogation that he was into foreign exchange business that involved buying and selling of currencies with “mallams”.