..quashes EFCC’s declaration of Aiteo boss as a fugitive
By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – An Abuja High Court sitting at Bwari, on Thursday, held that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was bereft of the powers to declare any person wanted without firstly securing the leave of a court of competent jurisdiction.
Consequently, the court, in a judgment that was delivered by Justice Othman Musa, quashed and invalidated the declaration of the Chairman of Aiteo Group, Mr. Benedict Peters, as a wanted man, by the EFCC.
The court faulted the anti-graft agency for publishing on its website that Mr. Peters was a wanted fugitive, when it had yet to secure a court order to that effect.
Justice Musa held that a fundamental right enforcement suit the Applicant filed before the court was well founded, saying EFCC’s declaration that he was wanted deserved to be set-aside since it was made without recourse to the rule of law.
He said the action of the agency was in gross violation of sections 34, 35 and 36 of the 1999 constitution, as well as sections 41 and 42 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015.
Nevertheless, the court said its decision did not amount to a blanket declaration that EFCC could not declare anyone wanted when it is armed with a valid court order after fulfilling all the condition precedents.
According to the court, “It is hereby declared that the act of declaring the Applicant wanted on the website of the 1st Respondent (EFCC) without firstly securing leave of court is unconstitutional, illegal, wrongful and same is hereby set-aside”.
It however declined to grant a prayer that sought to compel EFCC to tender an apology to the Applicant in two national dailies.
The Aiteo boss had through his lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, challenged the powers of EFCC to declare him wanted when he has not been charged with any criminal offence before any court or jumped bail.
He insisted that EFCC grossly and arbitrarily violated his fundamental rights to personal liberty, freedom of movement and his right not to be subjected to any degrading treatment.
Aside EFCC, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, was cited as the 2nd Respondent in the suit marked FCT/HC/CV/23/2017.
The applicant told the court that EFCC had sometime in 2015, asked him to appear before it in respect of an investigation into how the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Deiziani Allison-Madueke alleged used $115million to bribe officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, before the last general election.
The Applicant was alleged to have released $60m of the total bribe sum.
Mr. Peters told the court that he was receiving medical treatment in France when the invitation letter was extended to him by the EFCC, and therefore wrote a letter requesting that the appointment be deferred till June 2, 2015.
However, he decried that before the appointed day, armed operatives of the agency invaded the premises of Aiteo and arrested the Managing Director and the Executive Director, without warrant.
He further told the court that on June 1, 2015, EFCC operatives equally stormed his residence in Lagos and arrested his driver.
The Aiteo boss said he became suspicious of the motive behind the invitation and feared for his life, hence his decision to file the suit in July, 2015.
Dissatisfied with his action, EFCC, on August 15, 2016, declared him wanted and published same on its website and on Punch Newspaper and Sahara Reporters, with his photograph attached
The Applicant told the court that on August 17, he wrote a letter to EFCC, expressing surprise that he was declared wanted and volunteered to assist the agency in its investigations.
He said he also gave a detailed written explanation of all he knew about the alleged bribery, a development that led EFCC to initially remove his name from its wanted list, only to re-publish it again.
Meantime, EFCC, in a preliminary objection it filed before the court, said its investigations revealed that the the Ex-Petroleum Minister, the Applicant, Northern Belt Oil Limited and others, were involved in conspiracy, stealing and money laundering totalling about $300m.
EFCC said it secured a warrant of arrest from a Magistrate Court in Lagos before it declared the Applicant wanted, saying it carried out the action inline with its mandate to investigate and prosecute offences bordering on economic and financial crimes.
Similarly, the AGF challenged jurisdiction of the court to entertain the case, insisting that the matter ought to have been filed before the Federal High Court considering that EFCC is a federal agency.
In his judgment, Justice Musa dismissed both preliminary objections, noting that whereas EFCC claimed that it secured the warrant on August 5, 2016, the document itself was dated August 4.
The court relied on Supreme Court decided cases and held that it has coordinate jurisdiction with the Federal High Court on issues involving the enforcement of fundamental human rights.
Meantime, though the court invalidated the declaration of the Applicant as a fugitive, it however declined to quash the said warrant of arrest that was issued against him by the Magistrate Court.