Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court in Abuja has insisted that the trial of Colonel Nicholas Ashinze, a former Aide to Colonel Sambo Dasuki and 7 others in alleged N1.5bn fraud would not be resumed until the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) retracts fully the misrepresentation of the court’s proceedings that the defendants are being tried on N36.8bn fraud.
The EFCC also wrongly referred to the aide of Dasuki as a retired military officer while 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 ascertain its claim.
Justice Kolawole had last adjourned date March 21, 2017, warned EFCC to stop media trial of Nigerians being put on prosecution for any offence and ordered that the alleged N36bn fraud contained in the EFCC Press Statement issued by one Mr. Wilson Uwujare must be retracted.
The Judge also ordered the news media involved in the alleged 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 today, 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, 2017 but however failed to present a copy of the retraction to the court as required by law.
Uket therefore urged the court to resume the trial of the defendant on the ground that the court order issued against EFFC had fully been complied with.
However, Mr. Ernest Nwoye, Counsel to Colonel Ashinze stood his ground that the EFCC had not in any ways obeyed and respected the court order on the ground that EFCC has not shown any evidence or placed any document before the court as a prove of compliance.
The counsel argued 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 necessary papers and attaching necessary document to show the compliance to 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.
Counsels to other defendants in the matter including the Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Paul Irokoro (SAN) 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 has not shown any seriousness or do enough to protect the integrity of the judiciary from being unjustly rubbished.
The judge said that “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 criminal matter will be prejudiced when they are unjustly subjected to media trial through 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 out in respect of the proceeding of this court.
“It is hereby also ordered that the Deputy registrar, litigation must liase with Deputy Sheriff and ensured 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, 201) to appear before this court on May 4, 2017 to show cause where they got their story on the N36.8bn fraud published.
“Let it be understood that the press has the fourth Estate of the realm has the responsibility of holding all arms of government accountable to general public but the press has no business in misrepresenting the court so that the defendant in criminal matters would not be prejudiced and would not be found guilty though false media trial before the real court trial.”
Justice Kolawole said that his order of March 21, shall be in force until it has been fully complied with.
It would be recalled that based on lawyers’ complaints, the judge stopped the trial of Colonel Nicholas Ashinze and others in the alleged diversion of N1.5bn brought against them by the Federal Government.
The action of the Judge followed a Press Statement issued by EFCC that Colonel Ashinze is being prosecuted on alleged N36bn fraud and which was widely reported on March 8, 2017 by some national dailies.
Justice Kolawole held that deliberate misrepresentation of court proceeding as done by EFCC through its press release was in bad taste and would always prejudice the defendants because the public would be made to have different perception of the real trial in court.