Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court, who is facing 16-count charge bordering on money laundering, age falsification and alleged illegal possession of multiple international passports, Wednesday, told a Federal High Court in Abuja that he was not ready for trial.
Ngwuta, who was docked before the high court on November 21 and subsequently granted bail to the tune of N100 million, pleaded for an adjournment to enable him adequately prepare his defence to allegations the Federal Government levelled against him.
The embattled jurist made the application on a day the prosecution, led by a former attorney at the International Criminal Court of Justice, ICC, Charles Adeogun-Philips, disclosed that three witnesses were in court to enter evidence against him. “My lord, we are ready to open our case today. Our witnesses are in court and we have all our arsenals ready,” the prosecution told the court.
However, Ngwuta’s lawyer, Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN, who was formerly an Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, insisted that his client would need more time and facilities to prepare for his defence.
“My lord, we are anxious for this matter to commence so that we will know our fate. However, we will be pleading with your lordship to grant us an adjournment so that we can be fully prepared. We have so many documents yet to access. Under the constitution, the defendant requires adequate time to prepare for his defence. The matter cannot even go on tomorrow as earlier stated, because we still have a lot of work to do.”
He also prayed the court to direct the prosecution to furnish him with all the documents he intends to adduce in the course of the trial. “My lord, you heard the prosecution describe it as an arsenal. We became afraid when he made that statement”, Agabi stated.
The prosecution counsel, however, urged the court to refuse the adjournment request and okay the matter for immediate trial. “My lord, I am terribly astonished by my friend’s application this morning. This matter was fixed by consent of parties on November 21. May I also draw your lordship’s attention to Section 396(3) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, 2015, which makes provision for day-to-day trial of the defendant.
“Also bearing in mind that the front loading procedure of this court requires that all evidence must be adduced before hand and also served on the defence. There is nothing materially different to warrant an adjournment. So I will be asking my lord to reject the application.
“I also want to refer my lord to the practice direction of this court. My lord, this is indeed a high profile trial and there is need for expediency,” Adeogun-Philips submitted.
He further decried the fact that a great amount of resources was expended to bring the three witnesses to court for the trial to commence and urged the court to allow the prosecution to open its case and then adjourn to enable the defence to cross-examine the witnesses later.
Nevertheless, Agabi, SAN, pointed out that under the ACJA, his client was entitled to five adjournment requests. “I appreciate the sacrifices made by the prosecution. But it is a sacrifice made in the interest of justice. We have to come prepared. May I refer your lordship to Section 396 (4) of the ACJA. It said where day-to-day trial is practicable, we are entitled to five adjournments, but after today, we won’t ask for another.
“Let us also not overlook provisions of the constitution in section 36(6) which allows for adequate time and facilities to be given to anyone charged to court to prepare his defence. The State is supposed to give us facilities. The application is made in good faith.”
The prosecution immediately countered him, saying: “My lord, the right that accrues to the accused is to prepare his defence. Section 396(4) of ACJA only made reference to when day-to-day trial is impracticable. They have not demonstrated that to this court. So I do not really see why my friend on the other side does not want this case to go on today.”
In a bench ruling, trial Justice John Tsoho noted that section 396(4) of the ACJA indeed made provision for a maximum adjournment of five times. The judge stressed that section 36(6) of the 1999 constitution which allows a defence to have adequate time and facilities to prepare his defence, has a wider scope, saying it also encompasses the mental preparedness of an accused to stand trial.
“Viewed towards this perspective, this court is inclined to grant the request of the defence counsel,” Justice Tsoho held, noting that it was the first indulgence sought by the defendant. He further held that section 36 of the Constitution overrides the provision of section 396 of the ACJA.
The matter was eventually adjourned till January 18 and 23, 2017, for trial. FG had earlier opposed Ngwuta’s release on bail, stressing that he has the capacity to interfere with some of the witnesses billed to testify against him before the court.
The government told the court that shortly after Ngwuta was granted administrative bail by the DSS, he quickly called one of the proposed witnesses to help him conceal some of the evidence against him, including N27 million he hid in his bathroom at Abakaliki in Ebonyi State.
In a 29-paragraphed counter-affidavit deposed to by one Ganau Noma Wando, FG further told the court that barely 20 minutes after Justice Ngwuta was released from DSS custody, he called one of the key witnesses, Nwamba Linus Chukwuebuka, to go to his house in Abakaliki and dispose the money and cars there.
“The first instruction was ‘Go and get rid of those cars.’ The second instruction was ‘go into my bathroom at my residence where you will find two or three bags, get rid of them immediately.’ “If the witness had got into the bathroom and found bags stuffed with newspapers, we won’t be raising this objection today. But the bags contained N27m which they removed from the defendant’s residence to another place. We could not even find it again.”
The prosecution also told the court that the defendant equally removed three exotic cars from his residence in his home town. “As at October 9, the defendant was already aware that he was subject of investigation by the DSS. In fact, he had been in their custody for two nights and was interviewed for that 48 hours. He was aware that the subject matter of the items removed from his residence at Abakaliki would have been of interest to this investigation. This has put me in a very difficult situation, so much so that the defendant is charged with interference in count three.
“In count 10- 16 in the charges, the defendant was alleged to have maintained multiple identities. My lord, in any jurisdiction in the world, if a person is found to have multiple identities, I cannot but object to his release on self recognition or being released at all. On October 8, a day before the call was made to Abakaliki, the defendant was found with four valid passports. Two of them were diplomatic passports while two were standard passports.
“Now we are confronted with such acts of dishonesty, with offences committed whilst in administrative bail. “It is not enough that he was found with four passports, but the NIS confirmed that he was using the passports concurrently and interchangeably. We only found four, there might be others. How do we know? When we searched his residence in Abuja, we didn’t know there was N27m in his bathroom at his private residence located at Engineering Close, Off Onwe Road, Abakaliki Ebonyi State,” the prosecution counsel added.
He told the court that the witness, Nwamba, initially hid the bag that contained the N27m cash at the residence of one Abraham Ezeani in Abakaliki, saying the money “was subsequently dissipated by Mr Nwamba on the direct instructions of the defendant/applicant.” It listed the three exotic cars that Ngwuta allegedly attempted to conceal, as a Hummer Jeep Sports Utility Vehicle, Wrangler Jeep Sports Utility Vehicle and a BMW 5 Series Sedan Vehicle which it said was quickly moved by the defendant to Clevero Hotel in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State.
FG said the properties which it maintained were derived from the proceeds of an unlawful act, were all subsequently recovered by investigators on November 11, following Nwamba’s arrest, weeks after the defendant had been released on administrative bail.
“That the sheer amount of raw cash either found on and/or concealed by the Defendant/Applicant following his arrest by the DSS, is indicative of the fact that he is a man of immense financial means and is sufficient ground for believing that if released on bail, he possesses the material ability to abscond and consequently not surrender himself for trial.
“That in view of the foregoing, despite his position as a serving Justice of the Supreme Court bench, it cannot be said that the Defendant/Applicant conduct as outlined above, is that of a law abiding Nigerian citizen who will surrender himself to the court for trial”, FG argued.
Nevertheless, in his ruling, Justice Tsoho noted that despite allegations FG raised against Ngwuta in the counter-affidavit, it still did not revoke the administrative bail it previously gave the defendant through the DSS.
He said there was room for such bail to be revoked once the person it was granted to was seen to have breached it in anyway. Besides, the Judge said it was no longer secret that security agencies have been monitoring the defendant since the day he was released from custody. He held that the objection by the prosecution was founded on theories of what the defendant would likely do if granted bail, saying he was of the view that the FG has the security apparatus to circumvent whatever action the defendant could take to scuttle his trial.
“Consequently, this court is minded to grant the defendant bail in the sum of N100m on his personal recognition having regard to his status as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria”, Justice Tsoho held. The sting operation It will be recalled that Justice Ngwuta was among seven superior court judges that were arrested between October 7 and 8, after the DSS raided their homes in what it termed “a sting operation”.
He was in the amended charge marked FHC/ABJ/C/232, and signed by a Principal State Counsel, Hajara H. Yusuf, alleged to have among other offences, stashed foreign currencies in his Abuja home. FG said the DSS, at the end of the search operation conducted at Ngwuta’s official residence, recovered several sums of cash, including the sum of Thirsty Five Million, Three Hundred and Fifty-Eight Thousand Naira (NGN35,358,000.00); Three Hundred and Nineteen Thousand, Five Hundred and Ninety- Six United States Dollars ($319,596.00). Also recovered were Twenty-Five Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifteen Pounds Sterling (GBP 25,915) and Two Hundred and Eighty Euros (EURO 280.00).
It said the search also revealed about four Diplomatic passports, one official and two standard Nigerian passports all in the name of the defendant. FG told the court that the DSS executed a search warrant at Justice Ngwuta’s home on October 8, following series of allegations of corruption that were levelled against him.
Documents revealed that FG has lined-up five witnesses that will testify against Ngwuta. The witnesses are Aminu N Ibrahim, who is to testify on the search conducted on the defendant’s residence on or about 7/8 October, Ngo Awoikiega, who will testify on the investigation/ interrogation of the Defendant.
Others are Tanko Nuhu Kutana, an Immigration Officer who will testify on the multiple Diplomatic and Standard Nigerian Passports obtained by the Defendant. Ogudu Nwadire will tell the court how as an Architect to the defendant between 2014 and 2016, he handled several projects for which he received cash payments totalling $100,000.00. While Nwamba Linus Chukwuebuka will testify on how as a building contractor to the defendant between 2014 and 2016, he handled several projects for which he received cash payments from the Defendant totalling $1,000,000.00. The DSS official responsible for the investigation of the case, Bamai Abu Nehemiah, had deposed an affidavit of completion of investigation into the matter.
According to him, “That I was informed by Hajara H. Yusuf, a Principal State Counsel in the Department of Public Prosecutions of the Federation at her office at the Federal Ministry of Justice, Abuja, FCT, on Monday, 18th day of October, 2016 at about 12 noon that it is the opinion of the Department of Public Prosecution that the investigations conducted in this case has so far revealed a prima facie case against the Defendant”.