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Alleged N3bn Fraud: Suswam’s request to participate in CJ’s clearance stalls trial

The Federal High Court in Abuja, on Tuesday, adjourned till Wednesday, the trial of Senator Gabriel Suswam, to enable him to participate in the Senate proceedings for the clearance of the Acting Chief Judge of the court, Justice John Tsoho.

President Muhammadu Buhari had earlier sent Tsoho’s name to the Senate for confirmation following the judge’s recommendation for appointment as the substantive Chief Judge of the Federal High Court by the National Judicial Council.

Suswam, a former Governor of Benue State, is the senator representing Benue North-East Senatorial District where Justice Tsoho hails from, defence lawyer, Chinelo Ogbozor, told the court while asking the trial judge, Justice Okon Abang, to adjourn the case on Tuesday.

The ex-governor and the then Commissioner for Finance in his administration, Omadachi Oklobia, are being prosecuted before the court on N3.1bn money laundering charges.

They were accused by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of diverting the money which was said to be part of the proceeds of the sale of some shares of Benue State in a company.

Justice Abang had on Monday adjourned the matter till Tuesday to enable the EFCC’s first prosecution witness, Mrs. Clara-Whyte Mshelia, to continue her testimony.

Msheila is the Managing Director of Elixir Investment Partners, the firm managing Benue State’s shares on behalf of the state.

At the resumed hearing on Tuesday, Suswam’s lawyer, Chinelo Ogbozor, pleaded with the judge to adjourn the case to enable the senator to participate in the Senate hearing on the clearance of Justice Tsoho.

She added, “It is an issue of national importance that affects the leadership of the Federal High Court and the nation as a whole.

“The first defendant being the sponsor of that motion and leader of the Benue senators, his presence is seriously required by the National Assembly by 10.00 a.m. this morning.”

The co-defendant’s lawyer, Audu Aluga, did not oppose the application for adjournment on the grounds that it was to enable the senator to participate in a constitutional process.

But the EFCC’s prosecuting counsel, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), opposed the application for adjournment.

He said in climes where Nigeria borrowed its democratic system of government, the defendant would be more interested in clearing his name first before handling any state matters.

He said, “We borrowed democracy from the West but we did not borrow the norms of democracy and its values.

“In the climes where we borrowed our democracy, the first defendant would like to clear his name first before handling state matters, so that state matters would not be polluted.

“That he wants to participate in the confirmation of the Chief Judge amounts to a grave danger to justice.

“What will be the impression of the ordinary man in Nyanya market that an accused person is going to clear the Chief Judge of the court where he is being prosecuted?

“And he has the effrontery to announce it before this court that he wants to participate in the confirmation.

“It will be damage to our reputation, goodwill and morals for him to participate in the Senate proceedings of today at the National Assembly.

“I will not like him to participate in the confirmation of the CJ.”

He also said Benue State, with three senators like other states of the federation, had two other competent senators that could represent Benue State at the Senate proceedings in Suswam’s absence.

In her closing response, Suswam’s lawyer noted that her client, by virtue of section 36(5) of the Constitution, remained innocent until proven otherwise.

According to Ogbozor, Jacobs’ submission that Suswam be disallowed from participating in the proceedings for  CJ’s confirmation amounted to “pre-judging the first defendant as guilty already.”

Ruling, Justice Abang agreed with Ogbozor that the senator was presumed innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution.

The judge noted that, although the prosecution witness who was already in the box was a nursing mother who had to travel from Lagos to be able to testify in the case, there was the need to balance the competing rights of parties before the court.

The judge said, “Her baby did not bargain for this. But there is no sacrifice for the court to balance the competing right of parties.

“I want to assure you all that justice will be done and will be seen to have been done.”

He adjourned till Wednesday for the continuation of trial.

The defendants were arraigned before Justice Abang on September 30 after the former judge, Justice Ahmed Mohammed, who had been handling the matter when it started in 2015, withdrew from the case earlier in this year.

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