The five-year $500,000 bribery trial of the former Chairman of the House of Representatives Ad-hoc Committee on Fuel Subsidy, Mr. Farouk Lawan, has suffered another huge setback due to the transfer of the case by the Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Ishaq Bello, from one judge to another.
Documents obtained by The PUNCH from the Federal Ministry of Justice showed that Justice Bello’s decision to reassign the case was connected with a petition dated March 21, 2017, by Lawan, accusing the immediate past trial judge, Justice Angela Otaluka, of bias in her handling of the trial.
The PUNCH gathered that Justice Bello withdrew the case from Justice Otaluka of the Lugbe Division of the FCT High Court and transferred it to Court 32 of the Jabi Division.
Court 32 is presided over by Justice Yusuf Halilu, who will be the fourth judge that will handle the case since it was filed in 2012.
With the transfer of the case from Justice Otaluka to Justice Halilu, the case has to start from the beginning with a fresh arraignment of the defendant before the new judge.
A hearing notice served by Justice Halilu’s court on both the prosecution and the defence was part of the documents obtained from the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The hearing notice, dated June 7, 2017, showed that Justice Halilu’s court had fixed June 20 for the mention of the case.
It implies that the case will now come a day before the June 21 date earlier scheduled by Justice Otaluka to continue the trial.
Federal Government is prosecuting Lawan before Justice Otaluka on three counts of corrupt collection of $500,000 out of the $3m bribe he allegedly requested from the Chairman of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, Mr. Femi Otedola.
Lawan was accused of accepting $500,000 as a bribe for the removal of Otedola’s company’s name, Zenon Petroleum and Gas Limited, from the list of firms indicted by the Lawan-led House committee for allegedly abusing the fuel subsidy regime in 2012.
The prosecution was nearing the end of its case, having called four out of its five proposed witnesses, when the Chief Judge suddenly withdrew the case from Justice Otaluka and re-assigned it to Justice Halilu.
With four of the proposed witnesses having testified, the prosecution was left to call Otedola as its last witness.
This is the second time a petition by Lawan, alleging bias against the trial judge, will cause the Chief Judge to transfer the case to a new judge.
The bribery case was withdrawn from the trial judge, Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi, and reassigned after Lawan lost his preliminary objection to the charges at the Court of Appeal.
On November 18, 2014, the second trial judge, Justice Adebukola Banjoko, who was presiding over the case in Gudu Division of the FCT judiciary, withdrew from the case over allegation of likelihood of bias levelled against her by Lawan.
Lawan had, in a petition to the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court, seeking the reassignment of the case to another judge, stated that Justice Banjoko was likely to be biased.
This, Lawan said, was because the judge and her family were allegedly close to Otedola, whom he (Lawan) said was a proposed prosecution witness and his (Lawan’) accuser.
Apart from the petition, Lawan had also, through his counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), filed a motion before Justice Banjoko, asking her to disqualify herself from further handling the case on the same grounds of likelihood of bias.
He had, in the two documents, alleged that Justice Banjoko voluntarily withdrew from the case and ordered the case file to be returned to the FCT Chief Judge, Justice Ibrahim Bukar, despite the withdrawal of the motion filed by Lawan.
A letter by the private prosecuting counsel, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), seeking the AGF’s “directive as to the next line of action”, described Lawan as being “notorious for making undeserved allegation when he feels he is likely to lose”.
The prosecutor stated in the letter, obtained by The PUNCH from the Federal Ministry of Justice, that the grounds for Lawan’s petition, which were the basis for the transfer of the case to a new judge, were “an appealable decision and the defendant filed no appeal against the decision complained about in the petition”.
He noted that the Chief Judge of the FCT High Court took the decision “without opportunity to us (the prosecution) for comment and without due regard to the long history of the case, the antecedent of the defendant (Lawan) and the damage to the case of the prosecution, transferred the case to another judge for trial de novo (afresh)”.
“This, your honour, is very frustrating, discouraging, oppressive on the prosecution and undeserved more so when the prosecution was not given an opportunity for hearing,” the letter stated.
In his March 21, 2017 petition which he personally signed, Lawan urged the Chief Judge “to use your good offices to transfer my case to a judge who does not have personal interest in the case and who will try me fairly”.
Lawan’s complaints were mainly the alleged refusal of Justice Otaluka to adjourn the trial on different occasions to enable his lead defence counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) to handle the defence’s case.
Lawan alleged that with the development in the proceedings of February 9, 2017 and March 14, 2017, among other allegations, he “no longer had faith and confidence in the Hon. Justice Angela O. Otaluka to dispense justice in this instant charge”.
Among Lawan’s allegations of bias levelled against Justice Otaluka, was that on February 9, 2017, the judge refused to take his motion challenging the court’s jurisdiction “and the judge ordered the prosecution to call its witness and proceeded with the trial despite the fact that my motion challenging her jurisdiction was still pending”.
He added that apart from refusing to take the motion challenging the court’s jurisdiction, the judge also allegedly refused an application by a “junior lawyer” appearing for him during the proceedings to enable his lead defence counsel, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), to appear and personally handle the matter.
“Added to the above, the judge had on three different occasions since trial commenced, displayed high level of bias which I verily believe has prejudiced my trial,” Lawan stated.