The Nigerian government on Wednesday indicated its intention to use secret witnesses in the prosecution of a rights activist, Omoyele Sowore.
A government lawyer, after he was challenged by Mr Sowore’s counsel, told the court that he was planning to seek the permission of the court to use secret witnesses.
The exact form of the secret witnesses is not yet clear, but it could involve the use of masked persons or closed sessions not open to the public. Before such is approved by the judge, it will be presented by the prosecutor. Mr Sowore’s lawyer, Femi Falana, on Wednesday already indicated that he would oppose such request.
Mr Sowore is being tried at the Federal High Court, Abuja Division, for calling for a revolution against the Muhammadu Buhari administration. He faces charges of treasonable felony and fraud.. On Wednesday, the court adjourned the trial of detained publisher of Sahara Reporters, after deciding that the prosecution was wrong to have omitted documents intended to be tendered by witnesses in the list of items served on the defence.
The court presided over by Ijeoma Ojukwu, had earlier refused an application by Mr Sowore’s lawyers for an adjournment to allow the defendants prepare for the trial. The judge, however, halted Wednesday’s proceedings after Mr Sowore’s lawyers, led by Mr Falana, told the court they were not served with videos and other documents intended to be tendered by the witnesses.
The prosecution team, led by Hassan Liman, had at the commencement of trial on Wednesday asked the court to allow the trial of the defendants to proceed as planned at the last adjourned date.
Responding, Mr Falana explained that the defence team was affected by the refusal of the SSS to allow them properly prepare for Mr Sowore’s defence.
He expressed confidence that the defendants will be freed on Wednesday, “having met the bail conditions given by the court.”
Mr Falana added that his team of lawyers could only properly prepare after taking instructions from their clients upon their bail. He then requested an adjournment.
In a reaction, Mr Liman said the charge was filed on September 20 and served on the defence team. He added that they were arraigned on September 30 and granted bail on October 4. Mr Liman also said that on October 21, the court varied the bail condition granted the defendants.
Mr Liman then noted that it was the defendants who requested to be detained at the custody of the SSS pending compliance with the bail conditions.
“I say with all sense of responsibility that at no point in time did the SSS refuse access to the defendants by their counsel or any of the counsel. From the records, only Mr Marshal went to the office of the State Service and he saw the defendants,” Mr Liman said.
He, however, confirmed that Mr Falana had raised the issue of lack of access on Wednesday with him in court.
“On my honour we cannot stand here and support any refusal of access to the defendants by their counsel because it is their constitutional right. Let it not be misunderstood that we are delaying this trial. Let us start the trial,” Mr Liman said.
In a further reaction, Mr Falana expressed surprise that Mr Liman feigned ignorance regarding his claim. Mr Falana argued that he had waited for hours to see the SSS boss on September 25 and had sent him a text message saying he (Falana) was waiting, without receiving any reply from the leadership of the SSS.
The human rights lawyer added that a lawyer from his chambers, Marshall Abubakar, had gone over 10 times to the office of the SSS without being allowed to see the defendants.
Mr Falan hen lamented the plan by the prosecution to use secret witnesses at the trial.
“My learned friend told me this morning that he would like the witnesses to come in through the judge’s door. I came in and saw equipment for secret trial and I was wondering whether someone was being admitted,” Mr Falana said.
Mr Falana argued that the entire plan for a secret witness was not within his knowledge and wondered how the prosecution could presume readiness for the trial when a decision has not been made by the court to allow the kind of trial wanted by the prosecution.
The lawyer alleged that the prosecution secured approval for secret presentation of witness from the deputy court registrar and planned to “harass the defendants” with that approval in court on Wednesday.
Mr Liman denied the allegations and said he was planning to present a request for secret presentation of witnesses at the trial.
The court ordered that the trial should begin after ruling that the reasons adduced by the defence for seeking adjournment were insufficient.
Regarding the planned presentation of secret witnesses, the judge said the prosecution was yet to inform the court of any request to that effect.
The judge then ordered the prosecution to begin its presentation of witnesses in open court.
But while the prosecution was about to call in the first witness, Mr Falana said he had strong objections to the entire trial. He said he had not been served with important documents listed as part of things to be presented before the court by the prosecution.
Following that observation, the judge said the prosecution had a duty to send the entire proceedings to the defendants and ordered them to do so. She then adjourned the matter to December, 5.
“My final say is that you should see them with all the documents,” Ms Ojukwu said in response to a claim by the prosecution that the issue of service, as requested by the defence, was subject to a final approval by the court.