By Harris Emanuel & Chioma Onuegbu
Uyo—Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Ekaette Obot, yesterday, sent a Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, to prison for one month, over alleged rudeness, while appearing in court for a case of defamation between Governor Udom Emmanuel and a lawyer, Leo Ekpenyong.
Governor Emmanuel had dragged Ekpenyong to court for alleged defamation.
Ekpenyong had accused the governor of greasing the palms of Chairman of the 2019 Election Petition Tribunal in the state, Justice W. Akanbi, to influence judgment in favour of the then Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, senatorial candidate, Obong Chris Ekpenyong.
The lawyer had alleged that the governor paid the princely sum of $1.4 million to the tribunal chairman to ensure favourable judgment for Senator Ekpenyong against his bitter rival, Senator Godswill Akpabio of the All Progressives Congress, APC.
CJ sentences lawyer to prison
Justice Obot, before ordering for the conviction warrant, lamented that she has ran out of patience by the excesses and unruly behaviour of the human rights Lawyer.
When the matter came up, yesterday, for cross examination of the last witness, Rev. Richard Peters, it ended abruptly, following the order of the Chief Judge, who was visibly infuriated by a perceived confrontational behaviour of Effiong.
During the cross examination by the defense lawyer, Effiong observed the presence of two armed policemen sitting behind him and prayed the court to excuse them (policemen) as their presence made the atmosphere tense and uncomfortable for him to proceed.
He said: “My Lord, as a legal practitioner, I have never seen armed policemen with Ak47 inside the courtroom. With total respect, my Lord, I don’t feel comfortable as a lawyer in this atmosphere, with armed policemen seated behind me.
“I am formally raising observation that the atmosphere of the courtroom is hostile for the proceedings. I’m also raising observations that my Lord should ask them to leave the court, they have no business being here.
“But if my Lordship rules that that is in line with the tradition of this court, let them pray the court should excuse them. Even in ceremonial court, armed policemen do not enter inside the court.”
Irked by Effiong’s observations, Justice Obot asked him to step out of the bar and ordered him to remove his wig and gown, Effiong obliged and the lawyer sought the reason for such order.
The trial Judge, Justice Obot ruled: “You are sentenced for being confrontational and contemptuous! Now remove your wig. You are no longer in a position to address me. You are hereby sentenced to one month imprisonment, to purge yourself of contempt.”
Effiong narrates experience
On his ‘Facebook Live’ video monitored by our correspondent, Effiong said he had earlier applied for the judge to recuse herself from the case to avoid possible bias.
According to him, the motion for recusal was not taken by the court, but surprisingly, the Chief Judge brought in some armed policemen into the court room and ordered him to be committed in prison on Wednesday.
He said, “We were in court this morning and as usual, the atmosphere was very hostile. I came in this morning and immediately My Lord, the Chief Judge came in, she ordered some armed policemen with AK-47 to come inside the courtroom, two of them, including her orderly. And then I kept quiet and the proceedings started and I reminded the court that I have a motion for recusal asking the Chief Judge to recuse herself from the matter on grounds of likelihood of bias which we have filed.
“The court said we should go ahead with the trial and leave the motion. The trial started and while I was cross-examining the witness of the governor, the judge ordered the journalist from Premium Times to leave the court and I said My Lord, it is an open court, hence anyone that wants to observe proceedings can observe proceedings.
“The judge now turned on me. I also raised a concern that I was not comfortable having armed policemen inside the court. That I have never seen two armed policemen with AK-47 inside the court.
That it makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel threatened, that they should be outside. And I applied officially that the court should excuse them from the court. My Lord ordered me to step out of the bar, ordered me to derobe and said she was committing me to prison for one month for raising an observation that it is not proper for armed policemen to be inside the courtroom.
“My Lord asked that a conviction warrant be brought. I am waiting for the conviction warrant. I am going to Uyo prison from here. I think it is also an opportunity to get to see people that are there.
“We will see how this goes. I just want everybody to know what has been happening. This case has been hostile. A lot of things have happened. Every time we come to the court, it is always one issue or the other. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t disrespected the court. I haven’t said anything to her that is personal. I just made an application that it was not proper to have armed policemen in court, the next thing she said I was being rude, that why should I say that, that I should step out of the bar, that I am going to prison.
“This is the case filed by Udom Emmanuel against a certain Leo Ekpenyong, a lawyer over alleged defamation. Since I got into this matter, it has been as if I shouldn’t have even defended this man. We have a pending application for recusal, asking the chief judge to recuse ‘himself’ from the case.
That application has not been taken. And this is exactly why we brought the application because of what has been happening. I am just waiting for them to bring the warrant. The judge has ordered them not to allow me to step out of the court, that I was going to be taken to prison from here. I am waiting for the policemen to come. You are not likely going to hear from me after now.
“We will see what happens from there. I have never seen this kind of situation before. How do you commit a lawyer to prison for making a formal application before the court? Immediately the chief judge came in, she clearly said that look today, anybody that says anything, she was going to deal with the person. How am I supposed to feel comfortable with people carrying AK-47 behind me? This is the price we have to pay for following our conviction.”
About 11.12, Effiong tweeted, “They’re saying that I can’t be jailed in Uyo prison because of COVID protocol, that I have to be in Ikot Ekpene prison. Uyo prison has rejected me.
“We are going back to the court now for His Lordship to determine where I should be jailed. History will vindicate the just.
“(I am) Inside a van at Uyo prison waiting for the issue of custody to be determined, between Uyo or Ikot Ekpene prison. History will vindicate the just,” he tweeted.
The Chief Judge could not be reached at press time.
Uyo NBA reacts
The Chairman of NBA, Uyo branch, Ememobong Udoh told Vanguard that the body had met with the Chief Judge to ensure the revocation of the order.
He said: “We just finished a meeting with the CJ because I have heard from Inibehe. One thing is certain, respect to the court is sacrosanct.
“From the CJ, his abuse to the court had been consistent and persistent. And he has been receiving several warning , that is from the CJ, that he should conduct himself as a lawyer before the court.
“From the situation now, we need to deploy a more reconciliatory approach to get her Lordship to revoke the order so that he can be out.
“Procedurally is for us to appeal the order, but how long would it take for him to get out? So, let us deploy a more reconciliatory approach and get him out. Let us be more objective about the way things are. Our respect for the court is non-negotiable.”
Other lawyers who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concern over what they described as a high handedness by the Chief Judge, saying that her action was borne out of malice.