The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, has dismissed the petition by the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, Chief Olisa Metuh, seeking the transfer of his trial for money laundering from Justice Okon Abang to another judge.
Justice Auta’s letter responding to the petition by Metuh, a copy of which our correspondents obtained on Thursday, stated that it was too late in the day to reassign the case in which the prosecution had already called all its witnesses.
The Chief Judge’s letter, dated March 24, 2016, signed by his Special Assistant, Mr. Ambrose Unaeze, was addressed to one of Metuh’s lawyers, Mr. Emeka Etiaba (SAN), who had signed and sent the petition on behalf of his client.
Etiaba sent the petition to the Chief Judge, accusing Justice Abang of bias in the handling of the case after his clients were called upon to open their defence.
The lawyer claimed in the petition that Metuh was a classmate of the judge in the 1987/1988 set of the Nigerian Law School.
He claimed that Metuh and the judge both practised law in Lagos before the PDP spokesperson relocated to Abuja, and Justice Abang, on his part, was appointed a judge.
Etiaba also alleged that Metuh met and had discussion with Justice Abang late last year in the Meridien Hotel in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, adding that his client was baffled at the views expressed by the judge during their encounter.
The lawyer also accused the judge of denying his client fair hearing by refusing to release to the defence team a copy of the records of proceedings of the court to enable them to appeal against some decisions of the judge in the course of the trial.
He alleged that the defence applied for the record of proceedings on February 8, 2016, to enable the defence to appeal against some decisions of the court, but that one month and one week later, the judge had yet to release it to the defence.
However, in his response to the petition through his Special Assistant (Unaneze), the Chief Judge said he could no longer take any administrative action on the case, considering the stage at which the matter was.
He advised that the only option open to the defendants was to file an application asking Justice Abang to disqualify himself from further handling the case.
Unaneze stated, “I refer you to your letter of March 16, 2016, and after a careful perusal of your application and the reasons stated therein, the Hon. Chief Judge has directed me to inform you that it is too late in the day for his Lordship to take administrative action with regard to your application.
“This is so because the parties have already joined issues but are at liberty to file an application before the judge for his consideration and appeal if not satisfied with whatever decision he may take.
“Please accept the assurances of My Lord, the Hon. Chief Judge.”
The defendants had since filed an application before the judge, asking him to disqualify himself from further presiding over the case and return the file to the Chief Judge.
The judge will today (Friday) hear the application which is predicated on the same allegation of bias against him.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is prosecuting Metuh and his firm before Justice Abang on seven counts of money laundering, including $2m cash transaction.
Part of the charges preferred against them also bordered on the N400m which the accused allegedly received fraudulently from the Office of the National Security Adviser in November 2014.
Meanwhile, Justice Abang, who presides over Metuh’s trial in the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, will today (Friday) hear a fresh application by the PDP spokesperson, asking the judge (Justice Abang) to disqualify himself from further presiding over the case.
Metuh’s fresh application is predicated on the same allegation of bias levelled against the judge in the March 16, 2016 petition which was sent on his behalf by one of his lawyers, Mr. Emeka Etiaba (SAN), to the Chief Judge of the court.
Justice Abang had earlier denied all the allegations in his response sent to the Chief Judge.
The judge stated that he could not recall either seeing Metuh while at the Nigerian Law School or coming across him while practising as a lawyer anywhere in the country before he (Abang) was appointed a judge in June 2009.
Justice Abang stated that contrary to Metuh’s claim, he never attended any function at the Uyo hotel where the PDP’s spokesperson claimed they met late last year.
He added that he did not see Metuh at the Law School class reunion meetings which he recently attended in Abuja, Lagos and Enugu.
The judge also denied the allegation that he deliberately withheld the record of proceedings to scuttle Metuh’s plan to appeal against some of the court’s decisions.[Punch]