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A Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday dismissed an application by the federal government prosecution to allow it to completely shield witnesses lined up to testify against three suspected members of Boko Haram sect.
The accused persons, who are being prosecuted by the federal government for terrorism charges, are an Islamic scholar and a lecturer at the Kogi State University, Dr. Muhammed Yunus, Salami Abdullahi (aka Asta) and Musa Umar.
The court had earlier agreed to allow the witnesses to be partially shielded when giving evidence.
However, some of the witnesses refused to enter the witness box unless they were allowed to completely cover their face.
But Justice Gabriel Kolawole refused the latest application, saying that he no longer had the jurisdiction to set aside his earlier order.
The ruling was a major blow to the prosecution’s case because the witnesses had insisted that they would not appear in court without an assurance that their identities would be fully shielded from public view.
The prosecution counsel, Mr. Ayanfeoluwa Ogunsina, told Justice Gabriel Kolawole after the ruling was delivered that he needed to make consultations before he could continue with the case.
“I will have to make consultations if we have to continue with the case of the prosecution,” he said.
However, Justice Kolawole rejected Ogunsina’s request to adjourn the matter till June 24 so that the prosecution would complete its consultation before coming to court.
He insisted that trial would start on June 9 and continue on June 10, 24, 25 and 26 as earlier scheduled in previous proceedings.
In dismissing the prosecution’s application, Justice Kolawole held that the application, which was the second of such seeking protection for witnesses, constituted an abuse of court process.
Apart from dismissing the prayer seeking facial masking for prosecution witnesses, the court also dismissed the two other prayers, asking the court to either set aside or modify its earlier ruling delivered on April 3, 2014.
The prosecuting counsel, Ogunsina, had filed the application dated May 2, arguing that the earlier ruling of the court, granting protection for the witnesses, was not exhaustive.
The prosecution argued that its witnesses were still afraid to testify, and had declined invitation to enter the witness box because the screen directed by the court to shield them, would not fully protect them from the view of the public.
But the judge blamed the lapses in the protection offered to the witnesses on the prosecution, which he said failed to suggest specific type of protection it needed in its earlier application.
The defence lawyers, Messrs Hassan Liman, James Ocholi (SAN) and Abdul Mohammed, had opposed the application, arguing among others, that the prosecution was only trying a second bite at the cherry having lost the earlier opportunity.
Justice Kolawole upheld the defence lawyers’ contention, saying, “The prosecution failed to give details of the required protection in its prayer 2 and left it open, and I would rather apply my liberal understanding of the principle of witness protection.
He added that the court had become functus officio as it no longer had the power to modify the order which he made after an inter-party hearing, and so could not grant the prosecution’s fresh application.
He also held that apart from correcting clerical mistakes, accidental slips or expressions to make the intention of the judge clearer, a court did not have the power to modify its order.
The judge said, “When I re-read the ruling of the court delivered on April 3, 2014, I applied the judicial guidelines highlighted above.
“I asked myself which clerical mistakes or accidental slips were contained in the ruling. Or which part of the ruling could not be understood.
“I was unable to answer any of the questions in the affirmative to favour the prosecution.”
He held that the only option available to the prosecution was to challenge his decision at the Court of Appeal.
The accused persons were charged with eight counts of terrorism charges, part of which are punishable under Section 17 of the Terrorism Prevention Act 2013 (as amended).
The offences include being in possession of two AK 47 rifles, which they allegedly used in terrorising people in Kogi State.
They were also said to have allegedly attended a meeting convened by the Boko Haram in Ayimgba, Kogi State and recruited people for training as members of the sect.
They all pleaded not guilty while their application for bail was rejected.