A Federal High Court in Abuja, on Monday granted an order seeking the protection of witnesses during the trial of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu.
Earlier in February, the court refused the federal government’s application to mask its witnesses in Mr. Kanu’s trial
But Justice John Tsoho gave the new ruling after hearing the arguments of both counsel for and against government’s application to produce witnesses protected “by a screen”.
Mr. Kanu and two others, Benjamin Maudubugwu and David Nwawuisi, are standing trial for treason, maintaining an unlawful society, among other charges.
The lead defence counsel, Chuks Muoma, who recounted the various stages of the case since it started in October 2015, accused the prosecution of unwittingly prolonging the matter.
He said the prosecution had on three occasions disobeyed the order of court and re-arrested Mr. Kanu after he was granted bail by various courts.
Mr. Muoma also said the prosecution had a right to appeal if it was dissatisfied with any ruling or proceedings of the court.
He said further that his clients had for too long remained in detention, without substantive trial, arguing that the prayer of the prosecution to adjourn the matter till witnesses are protected was a ploy to further detain the clients.
Mr. Muoma said the law provides for the prosecution to invite the defendant to court for arraignment.
He said the section states that when the case is called, the defendant appears voluntarily after court sermons or is brought to court by a court warrant.
But in the event where the complainant fails to appear and make its matters known in court, the case could be struck out.
Mr. Kanu’s lead counsel therefore asked the court to give an order for the prosecution to proceed with the matter or strike out the case.
He also prayed the court to discharge his clients after striking out the case and issue a restriction order, preventing any further arrest of the three defendants by the SSS or any other agency for related offences.
But in his response, prosecution counsel, Mohammed Diri, who is also the Deputy Director of Prosecution in the Office of the Attorney General, said the law cited by the defence counsel talks basically about the absence of the complainant, stressing that the complainants in this case were fully present in court.
Mr. Diri then stated that his request bordered on a variation of the court order made on February 19 for the presentation of witnesses in such manner, as to accommodate a section for the protection of the said witnesses.
But Mr. Muoma objected, stressing that an application for such a variation should have been made in a written document within 14 days after the order was made requesting the appearance of witnesses in court, not as a verbal request before the court.
Mr. Diri however prayed the court to grant a short adjournment to allow him prepare a written request for a variation of the court order.
In his ruling, Mr. Tsoho noted that Section 351 (1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act mentioned must be considered in relation to the complainant in this matter.
“For the provision to apply, it must first be ascertained who the complainant is,” said the judge.
Mr. Tsoho said the matter before him is between the three defendants and the federal government – represented by Mr. Diri.
He therefore ruled that the said provision does not apply in the quest to dismiss the matter as tabled before him.
Mr. Tsoho further ruled that the request made by Mr. Diri does not vary much with the Order Three of the court’s ruling on February 19.
The judge, who noted that the court had previously ruled against the masking of witnesses, however gave an order (Order 3), which allowed for the presentation of witnesses protected from identification by the general public.
He said the screened witnesses would be visible to the defendants and the counsel.
“In the light of this, the court is disposed to granting the application sought by the learned DPP,” the judge ruled.
The case was adjourned till March 9 for presentation of the masked witnesses.
Meanwhile, the defence counsel said they would contest the decision of the court.