Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court in Abuja has insisted that the trial of Colonel Nicholas Ashinze, a former aide to the ex-National Security Adviser (NSA), Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd.), along with seven others in the alleged N1.5 billion corruption case, would not resume until the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) retracts the misrepresentation of the court’s proceedings that the defendants are being tried for N36.8 billion fraud. The EFCC also wrongly referred to the aide as a retired military officer, whereas Nicholas Ashinze is currently a serving army colonel.
The judge dismissed the oral claim by the counsel to EFCC, Mr. Ofem Uket, that the anti-graft agency had retracted the offending publication because the lawyer failed to produce any document or evidence before the court to verify its claim.
Justice Kolawole had on March 21 warned EFCC to stop the media trial of Nigerians under prosecution for any offence and ordered that the alleged N36 billion fraud trial contained in the EFCC press statement issued by the commission’s spokesman, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren, must be retracted.
The judge also ordered the news media that reported the offending publication to appear before it and show cause why they should not be disciplined for misrepresenting the court’s proceedings by dishing out falsehood to the general public through the EFCC press statement.
When the matter was to resume on Thursday, counsel to EFCC informed Justice Kolawole that his client had already retracted the offending press statement as contained in some national dailies of April 12, but failed to present a copy of the retraction to the court as required by law.
Uket, on this basis, urged the court to resume the trial of the defendant on the grounds that the court order issued against EFFC had fully been complied with.
However, Mr. Ernest Nwoye, counsel to Ashinze, held that the EFCC had not in any way obeyed and respected the court order, arguing that the commission had not shown any evidence or placed any document before the court as proof of compliance.
The counsel contended that since the court order on the retraction was in writing and duly served on the EFCC, the anti-graft agency must show respect to the court by filing the necessary papers and attaching the necessary document to show compliance with the order of the court.
In the absence of any documentary evidence, Nwoye urged the court not to attach any seriousness to the oral evidence of the prosecution counsel.
Counsel to other defendants in the matter, including the Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Paul Erokoro, aligned themselves with the submissions of Nwoye and urged Justice Kolawole to sustain the order for the retraction until the evidence of compliance with the order has been shown.
In his ruling, Justice Kolowale disagreed with the oral evidence of the EFCC counsel, lamenting that the counsel as a minister in the temple of justice had neither shown any seriousness, nor had it done enough to protect the integrity of the judiciary from being unjustly rubbished.
The judge said: “No responsible judge will sit down and allow his court to be rubbished with falsehood as in the case of the EFCC that has been engaging in feeding the general public with falsehood.
“It is a fact that the defendants in a criminal matter will be prejudiced when they are unjustly subjected to media trial through the publication of falsehood and misrepresentation of the court’s proceeding.
“Since the court cannot act in vain, it is hereby ordered that the EFCC must show compliance in the appropriate way with the retraction of the offending press statement it issued in respect of the proceedings of this court.
“It is hereby also ordered that the Deputy Registrar, Litigation, must liaise with Deputy Sheriff and ensure that the order of March 21, 2017 is served on the Editor-in-Chief or the appropriate person in the Vanguard Newspaper to ensure that the Editor and his correspondent in Abuja responsible for the publication (of March 8, 2017) to appear before this court on May 4, 2017, to show cause where they got their story on the N36.8 billion fraud published.
“Let it be understood that the press as the Fourth Estate of the Realm has the responsibility of holding all arms of government accountable to the general public.
“The press has no business misrepresenting the court so that the defendant in criminal matters would not be prejudiced and would not be found guilty through false media trials before the real court trial.”
Justice Kolawole held that his order of March 21 shall remain in force until it has been fully complied with.
Following the complaints by Ashinze and others’ counsel, the judge stopped their trial over the alleged diversion of N1.5 billion brought against them by the federal government.