By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA —An Abuja High Court, sitting at Apo, yesterday, refused to declare that the alleged looters’ list the Federal Government released earlier in the year, amounted to breach of right of presumption of innocence of the named persons.
However, the court, in a judgment delivered by Justice Olukayode Adeniyi, held that any person aggrieved by the possible injury the list caused him, was at liberty to seek a remedy through a libel or slander suit.
Justice Adeniyi dismissed as lacking in merit, a suit lodged before the court by Chairman emeritus of DAAR Communications Plc, High Chief Raymond Dokpesi, which prayed it to declare that the inclusion of his name in the alleged looters’ list, amounted to gross violation of his right to presumption of innocence as enshrined in section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The court held that the alleged looters’ list that was disclosed on behalf of the Federal Government by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, sometimes in March, does not carry any force of law.
It maintained that the pronouncement of the Minister, who is neither a judge nor the prosecutor in the criminal charge federal government initiated against Dokpesi, lacked legal impetus and, therefore, not capable of affecting the plaintiff’s right to be presumed innocent of allegations against him, pending the conclusion of his trial.
Dokpesi had insisted that the list was highly prejudicial to his ongoing trial before the Federal High Court in Abuja.
In his verdict, Justice Adeniyi held: “What is more, the Defendant (Mohammed) has no statutory power to declare the plaintiff guilty of a charge pending in a trial court, hence there is no need to declare the credited to him as null and void.
“The comment made by the Defendant was a mere allegation by a third-party which cannot be used by any court to convict, because it has no force of law.”
The judge said the remedy open to Dokpesi, lay in a different cause of action, saying section 155 of the Penal Code could be invoked to report the Minister’s statement to the Police.
“What the defendant made was an allegation of commission of a crime. The Plaintiff can at best, report the Defendant to the police for remedy.
“The fact is that contrary to the claim of the Plaintiff that the Defendant has declared him guilty of committing a crime, it is only a court of competent jurisdiction that can declare him guilty.
“In this case, I have not seen any merit and it is hereby dismissed with no order as to cost because the presumption of innocence of the Plaintiff under section section 36(5) of the constitution has not in any way been breached by the Defendant,” the court added.
Meanwhile, the court, slated November 9 to hear a N5 billion libel suit the media mogul slammed against the Information Minister over the inclusion of his name in the list of alleged treasury looters.
Dokpesi, who is a Chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, told the court that Lai Mohammed had in a press conference he granted on March 30, portrayed him as “a corrupt and crooked person, a dishonest man and a thief.”
He told the court that his reputation had been seriously injured, saying he had suffered considerable distress, odium, obloquy, ridicule, as well as political analysis in the media, castigating him on the basis of the inclusion of his name as number four on the looters’ list.
The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, was cited as the 2nd defendant in the suit marked CV/1650/18, which the plaintiff filed through his lawyer, Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN.
Aside demanding N5 billion as damages for libel, the plaintiff further prayed the court to order the defendants to publish a full retraction and apology to him in all the major electronic and print media outlets in the country.
He equally applied for a perpetual injunction restraining the defendants, whether by themselves, their servants, agents, partners, representatives, privies and/or otherwise howsoever, from further writing, publishing, speaking or cause to be written, published or spoken, the said words complained of or any word to like effect, which are similarly defamatory to the plaintiff.
More so, he asked the court to compel the defendants to pay N50 million to cover cost of the litigation.
In his statement of claim, Dokpesi insisted that he had a sterling career in the public sector and in business, adding that he had been considered for several national assignments and held several professional positions.
He said the 1st defendant, Mohammed, had in the controversial statement “that went viral on social media”, painted a picture of him as a person “unfit to hold any public office, a man of unconscionable and questionable character, incapable of being trusted with public funds, wicked, selfish, inhuman and uninterested in the plight of suffering Nigerians.
“Further and by way of innuendos, the defamatory words complained of above and used by the Defendants also meant and were understood to mean that the plaintiff is a hypocrite.”
Dokpesi lamented that Lai Mohammed’s statement was carefully schemed and embarked upon as a way of vendetta to denigrate, disgrace, embarrass, humiliate and subject him to inhuman and degrading treatment before right thinking members of the society.
He told the court that many people, both within and outside the country, called and expressed their disappointment that they never knew he was a man of dubious character, adding that most of his friends, family members and professional colleagues had been avoiding him as they now see him as a dishonest man.
Dokpesi also told the court that based on Mohammed’s “reckless” and “malicious” statement, the United States Embassy, via a letter dated March 16, revoked his visa.
He alleged that the federal government had before the looters’ list was released by the 1st defendant, sent same to many foreign agencies and embassies, “requesting them not to deal with us because we are looters.”
The plaintiff told the court that he had earlier pleaded not guilty to Charge No FHC/ABJ/CR/380/2015, even as he contended that inclusion of his name as one of the looters that received N2. 1billion from office of the then National Security Adviser, compromised his constitutionally guaranteed right to presumption of innocence.
He said his right to fair hearing had been violated by the publication he said was tantamount to public media trial.