Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court in Lagos yesterday refused to strike out the money laundering charge filed against former Abia State Governor Orji Uzor Kalu.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) re-arraigned Kalu along with Udeh Udeogu and Slok Nigeria Limited on 34 counts of diverting N3.2 billion Abia State funds.
They were first re-arraigned on September 27 before Justice Anwuri Chikere of the court’s Abuja division after the case got to the Supreme Court on interlocutory appeal, following Kalu’s first arraignment in 2007.
Trial was billed to resume yesterday before Justice Idris, but prosecution counsel, Adebisi Adeniyi, got to court late.
Defence counsel Prof Awah Kalu (SAN) and Solo Agumah (SAN), who got to court before Adebisi, urged the judge to strike out the case for lack of diligent prosecution.
They said they came from Abuja for the case, adding that if EFCC was serious, the prosecution counsel ought to have been in court on time.
Justice Idris said it was true that the defendants were re-arraigned on October 31, following which the case was adjourned to yesterday for trial.
He condemned the prosecution’s absence.
His words: “The defendants are here and they are represented by counsel, fully prepared for trial. The court is ready to proceed with the trial in line with the intent and spirit of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA).
“The prosecution is absent, not represented by counsel, and there is no explanation whatsoever as to their absence in court this afternoon. This is unacceptable and highly detestable.
“No reasonable excuse has been put forward for the non-appearance of the prosecution team. This is an unacceptable conduct and one that will not be condoned by this court.
“This is a court of law and one of justice; such attitude towards the prosecution of cases, especially by the prosecution, will not be tolerated.
“Having looked at the case, being a transferred matter and being the second time the matter would be mentioned in court, and the first time to be called for trial, I shall, in the circumstances and in the interest of justice, exercise my discretion pursuant to the provision of Section 351(2) and adjourn the matter for trial.
“This will be the last of such adjournment in situations such as this. In the interest of justice, I shall direct a fresh date be taken for trial to commence.”
As the judge was about to adjourn, the prosecution counsel walked in. He said he was held up in traffic having gone to fetch a prosecution witness, who eventually could not make it.
Adebisi disagreed with the defence counsel’s demand that EFCC should notify them of any witnesses the prosecution intends to call.
Kalu and Akuma said knowing which witness was coming to testify ahead would enable them prepare for their cross-examination in order to speed up the case rather than asking for an adjournment.
But Adebisi rejected the request, saying: “There is need to protect the witnesses. How are we sure the witnesses will not be interfered with? This application has no precedent and no basis in law.”
Justice Idris said he would not make any order that EFCC should formally notify the defence of witnesses it intends to call.
“It should be informal between parties. I’ll encourage parties to communicate with each other and pass such information to ensure the trial goes on smoothly and speedily. We’re all practising law and there should be no bitterness,” he said.
Kalu and his co-accused allegedly diverted about N3.2 billion from the Abia’s treasury while he was the governor.
The former governor was said to have allegedly diverted the funds in tranches of N200 million, N50 million, N200 million, N300.8 million, N545 million, N429million, N288.4million, N190million, N157million, N152.8million, N100 million, N84 million and N50 million between August 13, 2003 and January 12, 2005.
The offence is said to be contrary to Section 17 (c) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2003 and punishable under Section 16 of the same Act.
The EFCC accused Slok Nigeria Limited of conniving with one Emeka Abone, said to be at large, to help Kalu retain the allegedly stolen funds in its accounts.
The prosecution said Slok “knew or at least suspected the said Orji Uzor Kalu to have engaged in a criminal conduct.”
Udeogu was accused of helping Kalu to pay part of the allegedly stolen funds into Slok’s account with the defunct FinBank Plc.
They were alleged to have utilised Manny Bank (now Fidelity Bank Plc), Spring Bank Plc, the defunct Standard Trust Bank and FinBank, now First City Monument Bank (FCMB) to divert the funds.
Justice Idris adjourned to March 6 to 10 and April 10 to 13 next year for trial.