OLUGBENGA SOYELE, Lagos
Justice Rilwan Aikawa of the Federal High Court in Lagos yesterday refused to suspend the trial of former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, pending the hearing of his application seeking to transfer the matter to Abuja.
The embattled former Minister had urged the court to stay further proceeding in the case until an application he filed to transfer the case to Abuja, where he contended that alleged offence was committed, is determined.
But the judge dismissed the oral motion holding that Fani-Kayode’s application is not yet ripe for hearing.
Justice Aikawa however granted an application filed by the second accused in the case, former Minister of State for Finance, Senator Nenadi Usman, praying the court for the release of her international passport to enable her travel abroad for a medical appointment.
The judge granted Usman leave to travel for three weeks between July and August to the United States but must surrender her passport to the court not later than August 31, 2017.
The two ministers and one Danjuma Yusuf and a company, Joint Trust Dimensions Limited were re-arraigned before Justice Rilwan Aikawa by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) following the withdrawal of the former trial judge, Justice Muslim Hassan from the case.
Justice Hassan withdrew from the case after Fani-Kayode objected to being tried before him, on allegation of bias.
The 17 count charge brought against them by the anti-graft agency border on conspiracy, unlawful retention of proceeds of theft and money laundering.
The EFCC alleged that the accused persons on or before January 2015, unlawfully retained the total sum of N4.6 billion, which they knew was a proceeds from an unlawful act.
While Usman, former Minister of Finance, under president Goodluck Jonathan Administration, Danjuma Yusuf and Jointrust Dimentions Nigeria Limited retained the sum of N1.5 billion, Fani-kayode and Olubode Oke, said to be at large, were accused of retained the total sum of N1,650,650 billion.
The accused persons were also alleged to have made payment of several amounts running to billions of Naira without going through financial institutions.
The offence which was allegedly committed between January 2015 and March 2015 is contrary to Section 18(a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) (Amendment) Act, 2012 and punishable under Section 15(3) & 4 of the same Act.
They pleaded not guilty to the charge.
During Wednesday proceedings, the EFCC called it first prosecution witness, Olusegun Idowu who identified himself as a media consultant.
Idowu told the court that he got two contracts of N24million and 6million from Fani-Kayode through an intermediary, one Olubode Oke.
However, at the prosecution’s request, the court adjourned trial till tomorrow (Friday) to enable the witness bring originals of invoices and receipts of the alleged transactions.
Earlier, Fani-Kayode’s counsel Norrison Quakers SAN informed the court that it was yet to rule on a pending application for the case to be moved to the Abuja division of the court.
Although Justice Aikawa said the application was not in the court’s file, Quakers insisted that the application was filed on the day of the defendants’ re-arraignment and had been received and acknowledged by the EFCC.
The application, Quakers said, was jurisdictional in scope and should be determined before trial could commence.
Quakers said: “Practice direction is clear on this matter. This is what the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, in his wisdom, has formulated. The rule is recognized by Section 490(d) of the Administration of Criminal Justice LAW (2015). Rules of court are meant to be obeyed.
“There is a practice direction that guides the Federal High Court in situations like this. The direction says the court will not commence trial until the defendant’s application is taken, one way or another. It is trite that jurisdiction is the life of any adjudication. The second defendant (Fani-Kayode) has not said he does not want to be tried, he is saying he does not want to be tried in Lagos.
“Your Lordship is bound by Rules of Court, the ACJL and judicial pronouncements on the issue to determine it one way or another.”
He argued among others that the CJ’s power to make the practice rules flowed from Section 490 of the ACJL pursuant to Section 254 of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
But Oyedepo, relying on Section 396 of the ACJL, argued, among others, that Quakers’ position was correct in law.
He said: “I submit that it would amount to turning the law upside down to say that the substantive issue, which is the allegation as contained in the charge, cannot be taken without determining the application. Section 396 of the ACJL is higher in hierarchy and takes precedence over the practice direction.
“This application is challenging the competence of this charge in Lagos. What the defendant did was just to lift the same application decided before Justice Hassan and re-filed it here. This application, apart from being a gross abuse of court processes, cannot constitute a stay.”
Ruling, Justice Aikawa upheld the prosecution’s argument and said, “I have listened to the erudite argument of counsel. In my opinion, practice directions, although having the force of subsidiary legislation, are meant to guide the court in criminal trials. Departure from it in some circumstances will not render proceedings fatal if done in the interest of justice and speedy conclusion of trial.”
The court then allowed the prosecution examine its witness, Idowu.
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