By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
The Court of Appeal in Abuja, on Wednesday, nullified the Federal High Court judgement that convicted and sentenced a former National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Olisa Metuh, to seven years imprisonment for money laundering.
The appellate court, in a unanimous decision by a three-man panel of Justices, held that the judgement trial Justice Okon Abang delivered against Metuh on February 25, was tainted with bias.
The appellate court held that the trial Judge made disparaging remarks in the judgement that betrayed his premeditated mindset against the Defendant whom he accused of writing various petitions against him.
In its lead verdict that was delivered by Justice Stephen Adah, the appellate court said it was convinced that Metuh and his firm, Destra Investment Limited, which was the 2nd Defendant, were denied fair hearing by the trial court.
It held that allowing the trial court’s verdict against the Defendants to stand “will set a dangerous precedent”, stressing that in criminal cases, “justice must not only be done but should manifestly be seen to have been done.
“In the conduct of the criminal proceeding, the trial Judge must be seen to be fair to both sides. Failure to do so will lead to the nullification of the entire proceedings,” Justice Adah added.
The appellate court held that the law made it mandatory that anyone accused of an offence must be accorded a fair trial.
“Judgement of the lower court cannot stand because of the taint of bias and it is accordingly annulled”, the appellate court held.
It voided the conviction and sentence that was handed to Metuh and his firm, Destra Investment Limited, and ordered that the case file should be remitted back to the Chief Judge of the high court to be reassigned to another judge for a re-trial.
Aside from upholding two appeals that were brought before it by Metuh and his firm, the appellate court also upheld a third appeal that was filed by the erstwhile National Security Adviser, NSA, Col Sambo Dasuki, retd.
It held that trial Justice Abang acted wrongly when he made damaging remarks about Dasuki in the judgement, even though he was not a Defendant in the charge.
The appellate court noted that Dasuki was merely summoned to testify as a witness in the matter.
It accordingly set-aside every aspect of the judgement where Dasuki’s name was negatively mentioned by the trial Judge.
Meantime, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, through its lawyer, Mr Sylvanus Tahir, said it would study the appellate court’s judgement so as to decide its next line of action.
It will be recalled that the trial court found Metuh and his firm guilty on the entire seven-count charge the EFCC preferred against them.
Justice Abang held that the anti-graft agency successfully proved that the erstwhile PDP spokesman unlawfully received the sum of N400million from the Office of the National Security Adviser, ONSA, prior to the 2015 presidential election, without contract approval or execution.
The court noted that evidence before it established that the fund was electronically wired from an account that ONSA operated with the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, to Metuh, via account no. 0040437573.
EFCC had alleged that the N400m which was released to Metuh and his firm by the former NSA, Col Sambo Dasuki, retd, was part of about $2.1 billion earmarked for the purchase of arms to fight insurgency in the North East.
In his judgement that lasted over six hours, Justice Abang held that since Metuh denied having any form of a contractual relationship with the ONSA, he ought to have known that the said fund that was paid to his firm, formed part of unlawful activity by the then NSA.
He said there was no evidence to corroborate Metuh’s claim that fund was only released to him on the order of former President Goodluck Jonathan for a “special national assignment” that had to do with security challenges that bedevilled the nation at that time.
Justice Abang held that the proof of evidence before the court showed that contrary to Metuh’s claim, the fund was used to enhance the political fortunes of the PDP before the 2015 general elections.
He noted that from materials placed before the court, many PDP chieftains benefited from the N400m largesse, adding that some of the beneficiaries included Chief Tony Aninih who got N21.7m and former Minister of Aviation, Chiefs Mrs Kema Chikwe who got N5m.
The trial Judge held that Metuh lied to the court when he claimed that he was not aware that the fund was paid to him from the ONSA account with CBN since banks send alert to their customers by default.
Besides, the court wondered why Metuh failed to compel ex-President Jonathan to appear as a witness to corroborate his claim, noting that though he initially moved to summon the ex-President, he, however, abandoned the idea halfway without excuse.
Justice Abang agreed with the EFCC that it was unlawful for the former NSA to have in breach of public trust reposed on him, misappropriated public funds in favour of Metuh and his firm.
He dismissed Metuh’s contention that he could not be convicted on a predicate offence that was committed by Dasuki.
Likewise, the court found Metuh guilty of engaging in an illicit transaction that involved the exchange of $2million, in violation of extant financial regulations.
It noted that Metuh, on two occasions, gave $1m to one Miss Nneka Ararume at his residence, with the fund exchanged and transferred to his account by Bureau De Change operators.
The court held that the 1st defendant engaged in such mode of transaction in a bid to conceal the origin of the funds.
In his sentence, Justice Abang handed Metuh seven years on counts 1, 2, 4 and 7 of the charge, five years on count 3 and three years on count 5 and 6.
He also ordered Metuh to pay a total sum of N375million to the coffers of the Federal Government, while the firm was ordered to pay N25m with respect to both counts 5 and 6 of the charge.
Justice Abang directed that the firm should be wound up with all funds standing to its credit forfeited to the government.
He held that the sentence should run concurrently starting from the day of the judgement.
Metuh was initially arraigned on January 15, 2016, and subsequently re-arraigned on February 18, the same year on an amended seven-count charge.