By Onozure Dania
Mr Abiodun Owonikoko, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), yesterday said that the Supreme Court lawfully quashed the conviction and 12-year imprisonment of former Abia State Governor, Dr Orji Uzor-Kalu.
Owonikoko, while reacting to the judgment of the apex court, said the Federal High Court in Lagos which last December 5 found Kalu guilty of stealing about N7.1billion from the Abia State Treasury, gave a technically flawed judgment.
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He said the trial judge, Justice Mohammed Idris’ decision to continue presiding over Kalu’s case after his elevation to the Court of Appeal was contentious and likely to be overturned on appeal, just like the apex court did.
He reacts in a Facebook post after the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of Kalu’s case, Owonikoko said: “We always knew that the judgment of the trial court was technically flawed (not on the merit though) hence the order for trial de novo (afresh ).
“It was easy to predict that it might not survive on appeal based on that snag of the judge coming back from a court of appeal to deliver judgment on a criminal trial that he did not conclude before his elevation.
“Who delivered the judgment at the trial court? Was it Idris J (as he had then ceased to be)? – or Idris JCA (Justice of the Court of Appeal) as he had already become at the material time?”
Owonikoko noted that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) gave a judicial officer that leeway, but that “it requires a constitutional amendment to validate it.
“Unfortunately we did not have such amendment at the material time and sadly, till date.”
He suggested that the EFCC should have opposed the continuation of Kalu’s trial before Justice Idris after his elevation to the Court of Appeal.
“The lynch mob mentality of conviction by whatever means misled EFCC to continue with the trial after Idris JCA had been appointed a Justice of the Court of Appeal. ”
“The injustice of the judgment is made all the more glaring when the erstwhile convict has had to serve time in prison whereas he is yet to be convicted; only to face new a trial for the same offences without a chance for compensation for the time served (wrongfully) in the event he is eventually found NOT GUILTY.
All hope is not lost however; the legislature can be approached to do the needful and render this judgment academic for future cases,” Owonikoko said.
The apex court yesterday in a unanimous decision by a seven-man panel led by Justice Amina Augie, voided Kalu’s December 2019 trial for stealing about N7.1billion from the Abia State treasury.
It held that the Federal High Court in Lagos acted without jurisdiction when it convicted Kalu, his firm, Slok Nigeria Ltd and former Director of Finance in Abia State, Jones Udeogu.
It held that trial judge Justice Mohammed Idris was no longer a judge of the Federal High Court as at the time he sat and delivered the judgement that convicted the defendants for allegedly stealing about N7.1billion from Abia state treasury.
According to the Supreme Court, Justice Idris, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal before then, lacked the powers to return to sit as a High Court Judge.
It held that the Fiat that was issued to him by the Court of Appeal President pursuant to section 396(7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act was unconstitutional.
The apex court vacated the judgement that convicted the defendants and ordered fresh trial.