Friday, April 25, 2014

Babalakin planning to escape from Nigeria, court told

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Wale Babalakin

Babalakin is being prosecuted for alleged involvement in a N4.7 billion money laundering

For the second time in as many weeks, the embattled billionaire boss of Bi-Courtney Limited, Wale Babalakin, on Wednesday, failed to appear in court over his role in a N4.7 billion money laundering allegation.

Mr. Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, is accused alongside Alex Okoh and their companies of laundering the billions for former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, who is now serving time in a U.K. jail.

The judge, Adeniyi Onigbanjo, adjourned to January 17, 2013 for the hearing of pending applications; as well as “a possible arraignment” of Mr. Babalakin and his co-accused.

The withdrawal

Before Wednesday’s hearing began, Ebun Sofunde, who represented Mr. Babalakin on the first day of hearing, announced his withdrawal from the matter.

Mr. Sofunde, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said that his withdrawal was a “personal thing.”

“I have a letter from Mr. Wale Akoni (another lawyer) which shows that they don’t intend to oppose my application to withdraw,” said Mr. Sofunde.

Another Senior Advocate, Bolaji Ayorinde, announced that he would replace Mr. Sofunde as counsel to Mr. Babalakin.

Mr. Ayorinde had, on the first day of the hearing, represented Stabilini Visinoni Limited and Bi-Courtney Limited, two companies in which Mr. Babalakin is the majority shareholder.

Rowland Otaru and Joseph Nwobike, both senior advocates, replaced Mr. Ayorinde, representing Stabilini Visinoni Limited and Bi-Courtney Limited respectively.

While announcing his new portfolio, Mr. Ayorinde objected to the prosecution’s request that the judge stand down proceedings until their lead counsel arrives.

Toyosi Uteye, a counsel of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, had told the court that other counsels had gone to the Federal High court where Mr. Babalakin had filed another matter to restrain his arraignment and prosecution.

Mr. Onigbanjo acceded to the EFCC’s request.

The hearing

When Rotimi Jacobs arrived, a few minutes before noon, the court resumed the hearing.

Mr. Jacobs stated that they were unaware that Mr. Babalakin had gone to file a matter to restrain his prosecution in another court.

“There are series of events that had happened after the last adjourned date,” Mr. Jacobs, a Senior Advocate, said.

“The first was a letter from Mr. Sofunde informing us he was resigning because he was not confided in by the applicant (Mr. Babalakin) that he was pursuing other matters at the Federal High Court,” Mr. Jacobs added.

Mr. Ayorinde, uncomfortable with the EFCC’s counsel’s revelation of the reason for Mr. Sofunde’s withdrawal from the matter, voiced his disapproval.

“The counsel said that it was a personal thing,” Mr. Ayorinde insisted.

But the EFCC’s counsel said that he has a duty to inform the court of the happenings, adding that he would not be “cowed by anybody.”

“Yesterday, at about 5:40 p.m., the first defendant (Mr. Babalakin) served me with an application. I’ve not been able to reply because I was not around when it was served,” said Mr. Jacobs.

The application, dated 11th December, seeks for an indefinite adjournment of the matter.

There is also an application for bail, filed by the defendants, before the court.

When the Federal High Court sat for Mr. Babalakin’s application on November 29, the same day he was to be arraigned at the Ikeja High Court; they adjourned to December 12, the same date of adjournment with the Ikeja court.

“When I file my application, I’ll address all these issues. He (Mr. Babalakin) has not taken his plea and he is filing applications,” Mr. Jacobs said.

In his response, Mr. Ayorinde urged the court to “discountenance any insinuation” that his client’s application at the Federal High Court was a tactic to stall his prosecution.

“He is a citizen of Nigeria and is entitled to protection by all the laws in this country. If he feels that his right is being trampled upon, he has the right to take steps and he has taken the steps,” Mr. Ayorinde said.

“The Federal High Court does not know the mind of your lordship. It’s just a mere coincidence, not a conspiracy,” he added.

EFCC’S hospital invasion

After Mr. Babalakin failed to appear in court during the matter’s inaugural sitting, two weeks ago; Mr. Onigbanjo directed the prosecution to go to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, to verify Mr. Babalakin’s claims of ill health.

Last week, EFCC officials stormed the hospital, where Mr. Babalakin is still receiving treatment, to keep an eye on him.

Mr. Ayorinde said that the commission surrounded the hospital with “truck-loads of stern looking security operatives.”

“This is Nigeria of 2012, not Abacha days. And he (Mr. Babalakin) is completely innocent.

“The man is not running anywhere. If the man’s health worsens by your (EFCC) activity and, God forbid, he dies, they will have nobody to prosecute,” Mr. Ayorinde said.

But the EFCC counsel said that an agent of the commission went to the hospital to verify Mr. Babalakin’s claims, as directed by the judge, but was denied access to him.

“The management said he (EFCC agent) cannot see him (Mr. Babalakin). He had to call the first defendant before they could allow him,” said Mr. Jacobs.

“He (Mr. Babalakin) provided private security, about 30. We had intelligence that he wants to leave the country. It has happened before. Ibori escaped from this country…. We don’t want it to happen again,” he added.

I want to go home, don’t arrest me

Mr. Jacobs also said that Mr. Babalakin informed the commission that he was “prepared to go home” and requested for a guarantee that he would not be arrested if he leaves the hospital.

“We told him that we could not guarantee that,” said Mr. Jacobs.

Wednesday’s hearing was as dramatic as it was comical, with frequent heated exchanges between the EFCC’s counsel and Mr. Ayorinde, and the latter also providing hilarious interludes in the capacity filled court room.

A solitary Mr. Okoh watched proceedings from the dock, where he stood, for about 45 minutes the hearing lasted.

Tayo Oyetibo, counsel to Mr. Okoh, said that his client had become a “stranger” in the matter.

“When they (EFCC and Babalakin) file applications, they do not remember us. What is going on is, like, keeping us in the dark. Why are they tying us down in the proceedings?” Mr. Oyetibo, a Senior Advocate, added.

The judge directed the EFCC to provide an independent medical report on Mr. Babalakin.

The other case filed by Mr. Babalakin at the Federal High Court has been adjourned to Thursday.

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