Justice Chuka Obiozor of a Federal High Court in Lagos recused himself from the hearing of the N1.4 billion alleged fraud case instituted against the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN) by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Citing personal reasons, the judge disclosed that he is unable to proceed with the hearing of the matter.
He said: “For personal reasons, I hereby disqualify myself from handling the case.
“I hereby return this file to the Chief Judge for reassignment to another judge”.
The matter was recently assigned to Justice Obiozor by the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdul-Kafarati following a petition by Usoro seeking the transfer of the case from another judge of the court, Justice Muslim Hassan.
Usoro was on 12th December, 2018, docked before Justice Hassan on a 10-count charge of alleged N1.4 billion fraud by the anti-graft agency.
However, prior to his arraignment, Usoro’s lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) drew the court’s attention to his client’s letter to the Chief Judge seeking the transfer of the case.
“I owe a duty to advise the court that the defendant made available to his lawyers, a copy of a letter dated 17th December, 2018, addressed to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court praying for the transfer of the case to any judicial Division between Uyo and Abuja or if in Lagos to any other judge apart from my lord presiding.
“The application is very innocuous and was written by virtue of the legal right of the defendant. We understand that a copy of the letter has been served on the court”, Olanipekun said.
He then urged Justice Hassan to wait for the decision of the CJ on Usoro’s request before proceeding with the case.
This position was however opposed to by the EFCC’s lawyer, Rotimi Oyedepo, on the ground that no objection can be raised by the defence until after the defendant’s arraignment.
He added that in view of the defendant’s presence in court unfettered, the next thing to do is to take his plea saying the steps to be taken are captured in Sections 269 and 271 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015.
In a ruling on the contentious issue, Justice Hassan held that arraigning the defendant will not preclude the Chief Judge from taking a decision on the letter.
In the charge marked FHC/418c/18, the EFCC claimed that Usoro converted and laundered the money in connivance with Governor Udom Emmanuel of Akwa Ibom State.
The governor was however not listed as a defendant in the charge, as the anti-graft agency indicated that he is “currently constitutionally immuned against criminal prosecution”.
Also mentioned in the body of the charge were; Nsikan Nkan, described as Commissioner for Finance, Akwa Ibom State; Mfon Udomah, described as the Accountant General of Akwa Ibom State; Uwemedimo Nwoko, described as the Akwa Ibom State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice; and one, Margaret Ukpe, all of whom were said to be at large.
The offence allegedly committed by the NBA President was said to be contrary to Section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011 and punishable under Section 15(3) of the same Act.
One of the counts as contained in the charge read as thus:
“That you Paul Usoro SAN, Emmanuel Udom (currently constitutionally immuned against criminal prosecution), Uwemedimo Thomas Nwoko (still at large), Nsikan Linus Nkan (Commissioner for Finance, Akwa Ibom state) (still at large), Mfon Jacobson Udomah (Accountant General of Akwa Ibom state) (still at large) and Margaret Thompson Ukpe (still at large) sometimes in 2015 in Nigeria, within the jurisdiction of this Honourable Court conspired amongst yourselves to commit an offence, to wit, conversion of N1.4 billion, property of government of Akwa Ibom state of Nigeria, which sum you reasonably ought to know forms part of the proceeds of an unlawful activity to wit; criminal breach of trust and thereby committed an offence contrary Section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act, 2011 and punishable under Section 15(3) of the same Act”.