Stella Oduah’s trial stalled again as judge warns those sending him private messages

….The arraignment of Stella Oduah and her co-defendants has been stalled about 13 times since the case was filed in December 2020.

By Premium Times and agency Report.

June 5, 2023

Justice Inyang Ekwo, a judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, said Monday that he had been receiving private messages regarding the N5 billion corruption trial of Stella Oduah and others.

Although the judge did not provide the identities of the senders, he warned them to desist from intruding on his privacy.

Mr Ekwo gave the warning at the resumed hearing of the case on Monday.

Ms Oduah, a serving senator and former minister of aviation, and other defendants, including a Chinese firm, CCECC, were scheduled to be arraigned on Monday. But the arraignment was again adjourned over ongoing talks between some defendants and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

A civil society organisation earlier called on President Bola Tinubu to intervene in the case, which has suffered numerous adjournments since it was filed in December 2020. According to the Anti-Corruption Network, the arraignment has been stalled 13 times.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that Mr Ekwo spoke about the intrusive messages he had been receiving about the case after the counsel for Ms Oduah (1st defendant), Onyechi Ikpeazu, and lawyer to Crystal Television Ltd (7th defendant), Ogbu Onoja, said there were ongoing moves to resolve the matter without going through a trial.

The judge then said: “Somebody has been breaching my privacy on this matter by sending me messages concerning this matter saying he is part of a concerned group.

“I will send security agencies to fish him out. You cannot be intruding into my privacy.”

Mr Ekwo, who condemned the act, said his records were public documents that anybody could assess after the public laws had been complied with.

Responding, prosecuting lawyer Hassan Liman, who appeared for the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), also condemned the act.

He said even if the person was a party in the suit, he had no right to communicate with the judge.

Botched arraignment:
Upon resuming proceeding in the matter, Mr Liman, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), told the court that the matter was slated for the arraignment of the defendants pursuant to the order made on the last adjourned date.

He said he was ready to proceed.

But Mr Ikpeazu, also a SAN, said there were applications they planned to file and that they felt a discussion should be held with the prosecution.

Mr Onoja, also a SAN, who represented the 7th defendant, also informed the court that his client had approached the anti-graft commission and paid almost 95 per cent of the money alleged in the case.

“We are waiting for the commission’s response and almost about N80 million is remaining,” he said.

Mr Liman admitted that it was true that counsel for the 7th defendant wrote to the EFCC, seeking the discontinuance of the matter.

The lawyer, who said that the matter was filed since 2020, said though he agreed that there was a reconciliation move, he, however, argued that the defendants must take their plea once the matter had been filed in court.

“The money we are talking about is over N7 billion,” he added, saying it was not such an amount Mr Onoja was alluding to.

Mr Liman said though a letter had been written, the commission had not even considered it, despite making the payment.

He admitted that the delay in the prosecution of the matter was not the court’s fault.

“I urge my lord to order them to take their plea,” he prayed.

Mr Ekwo, who said he was ready for the arraignment, said it would be better to dialogue with the defendants, and if that failed, the trial could commence.

He consequently adjourned the matter until June 15 for a report or commencement of trial.

Charges
This newspaper had reported how the EFCC, on December 17, 2020, filed 25 counts accusing Ms Oduah, while being Nigeria’s Minister of Aviation, and her co-defendants of laundering various sums of money totalling about N5,052,415,984 between February and June 2014.

One of the co-defendants is Gloria Odita (2nd defendant), who is said to be an aide to Ms Oduah when she was Minister of Aviation and company secretary of Sea Petroleum & Gas Company (SPGC) Limited, a firm founded by the former minister.

The rests are an employee of SPCG and aides to Ms Oduah, Nwobu Nnamdi (3rd defendant), Chukwuma Chinyere (4th defendant), Crystal Television Limited (7th defendant), and Sobora International Limited (8th defendant).

The ninth defendant is CCECC Nigeria Ltd, the Nigerian subsidiary of China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), established by the Chinese government to execute international contracts and economic cooperation.

The EFCC accused the defendants of conspiracy to commit money laundering, transferring, taking control and taking possession of proceeds of fraud, aiding and abetting money laundering and opening anonymous bank accounts.

Specifically, the prosecution alleged in two of the 25 counts that Ms Oduah and Ms Odita opened anonymous “Private Banking Nominee” dollar and naira accounts with First Bank, thereby committing an offence contrary to section 11(1) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 (as amended) and punishable under section 11(4) (a) of the same Act.

PREMIUM TIMES’ review of the charges showed that CCECC Nigeria Limited allegedly transferred over N2.5 billion into the naira account of a Private Banking Nominee between March 31 and June 6, 2014.

In seven of the counts where CCECC is indicted singly and along with Ms Oduah and Ms Oditah, the company was accused of “conspiring with the women to commit money laundering, and directly transferring to Private Banking Nominee account various sums of money totalling N2,583,385,246 which it reasonably ought to have known forms part of the proceeds of an unlawful activity to wit: fraud….”

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