A Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered that a former Bayelsa State Governor, Timipre Sylva and his co-accused persons must always attend court for the hearing of the N19.2 billion money laundering charge filed against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Justice Ahmed Mohammed’s order was contained in a ruling yesterday on the arguments by the lawyers in the case on whether it was necessary for the accused persons to attend court and mount the dock even when they were challenging the court’s jurisdiction, the competence of the charge and seeking the disqualification of the prosecution lawyer, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN).
The EFCC had late last year, filed the 42-count charge, in which the ex-governor and others were accused of laundering about N19.2 billion.
Charged with Sylva are: Francis Okoburo, Gbenga S. Balogun, Samuel Ogbuku, Marlin Maritime Limited, Eat Catering Services Limited and Haloween Blue Construction and Logistics Limited.
Yesterday, while Sylva and Balogun reluctantly mounted the dock, Okoburo and Ogbuku were absent in court, prompting prosecution lawyer, A. Adeniyi to urge the court to issue bench warrants for their arrest.
Defence lawyers, including Isreal Olorundare (SAN), who represented Sylva opposed the prosecution’s application for bench warrant.
He argued that since the accused persons were challenging the court’s jurisdiction, the competence of the charge and the continued appearance of the prosecution lawyer in the case, the court must first decide the issues raised by the accused persons before proceeding to hear the charge.
He argued that since the accused persons’ applications were still pending, the court must decide them one way or the other before proceeding to take their plea.
He argued that the prosecution lawyer was currently disabled from making any application, including applying for bench warrant when his appearance in the case was being challenged.
Lawyers to Okoburo and Ogbuku, James Odiba and Ajayi Olowo apologised to the court for their client’s absence.
Odiba said his client was ill and had gone on medical trip to Senegal, while Olowo said his client was in another court in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State in respect of another criminal case involving him.
They agreed with Olorindare’s argument that pending issues raised by the accused persons against the court and the prosecutor must first be resolved before any further steps could be taken in the case.
Ruling, Justice Mohammed held that since there was a pending charge against Sylva and others, they were, by law required to attend court at every hearing despite their pending applications against the court’s jurisdiction, the charge and the prosecution lawyer.
He further held that the defence lawyer, failed in their arguments to show any legal provision that the client could stay away from court just because they have pending applications challenging the jurisdiction of the court and the competence of the charge.
The judge also held that until he decides whether or not the prosecution lawyer was competent to proceed with the case, he could not be restrained from making any application in the case, including the application for bench warrant.
He however declined to issue the bench warrant prayed for by the prosecution lawyer on the ground that the lawyers to Okoburo and Ogbuku have sufficiently explained why their clients were absent in court.
Justice Mohemmed adjourned to October 8 for hearing of the pending applications by the accused persons.
Sylva was, in a preliminary objection he filed against the charge, challenging its legitimacy and urged the court to quash it.
It is his contention that they could also not be tried before a Federal High Court in Abuja since the alleged monies they were accused of laundering belonged to Bayelsa State and not the federal government.
The ex-governor contended that it was only the Bayelsa State Government or its agent that could prosecute them, if necessary, and in Bayelsa, where the alleged offences were purportedly committed.
Balogun is, by his application, seeking primarily to disqualify Jacobs from the case.
He accused Jacobs of hiding some material facts from the court and allegedly acting in unprofessional manner.
Balogun, in a supporting affidavit, averred that the EFCC, in a motion ex-parte seeking an order of interim attachment and forfeiture of some properties purportedly owned by Sylva, included that located at plot 1181, Thaba Tseka Crescent Wuse II Abuja, which was already a subject of litigation.
“That I know of a fact that the said properties which the complainant, through their counsel, seeks their attachment and forfeiture in their new application of March 10, 2014 with suit no FHC/ABJ/CS/188/14, are the same properties which are the subject of pending appeal at the Court of Appeal,” Balogun said.
He claimed that he was aware that material facts had been suppressed by Jacobs and the EFCC in an alleged attempt to deceive the court to make an interim order of forfeiture of the property of the owned by Marlin Maritime Ltd (the 5th accused) at plot 1181 Thaba Tseka Crescent Wuse II Abuja.