Justice Mohammed Liman of the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court on Tuesday ordered the immediate release of Orji Kalu, a former governor of Abia State, from the custody of the Nigerian Correctional Service.
The judge delivered his ruling following an application by Lateef Fagbemi, Mr Kalu’s lawyer, seeking his release from custody.
“Our application is brought pursuant to Section 159 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act,” Mr Fagbemi, a senior advocate of Nigeria, said.
“This is a fallout of the Supreme Court decision delivered on the 8th of May.”
Responding, Rotimi Jacobs, the counsel to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the prosecution, said the anti-graft agency would not oppose Mr Fagbemi’s application “in principle.”
“But we are also urging the court that the order made by the Supreme Court for trial de novo should be complied with by all parties; so that Your Lordship will give us a date when arraignment will be done.
“We want the trial to go on, losing more time will be dangerous for us,” Mr Jacobs, a senior advocate of Nigeria, added.
In his ruling, Mr Liman set aside the trial, conviction and prison sentence on Mr Kalu, while he also squashed Justice Mohammed Idris’ verdict on Slok Nigeria Limited.
Mr Idris had ordered the winding up of Slok Nigeria Limited and ordered that its assets be forfeited to the federal government.
Justice Liman commended the EFCC prosecutor for his “practical approach” to the case by choosing not to oppose the application, thereby saving the court time and the rigour of going to trial.
He directed that steps should be taken for the commencement of a fresh trial.
‘Convicted for fraud’
In December last year, the court had sentenced Mr Kalu, then a serving senator, to 12 years in prison for N7.65 billion fraud.
Mr Kalu was tried alongside his company, Slok Nigeria Limited, and Udeh Udeogu, who was Director of Finance and Accounts at the Abia State Government House during Mr Kalu’s tenure as governor.
In an amended 39 counts charge, they were accused by the EFCC of conspiring and diverting over N7 billion from the coffers of the state.
Following the nullification of his conviction by the Supreme Court, the former governor filed an application at the federal court seeking an order for his release from the custody of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS), Kuje, Abuja.
Mr Kalu had been accused of stealing and mismanaging funds belonging to Abia State during his days as governor between 1999 and 2007.
He pleaded not guilty but was sentenced in December 2019 to 12 years in prison.
He was jailed alongside Ude Udeogu, who was the director of finance and accounts at the Abia State Government House during Mr Kalu’s tenure.
The duo appealed the convictions by the Lagos Division of the Federal High Court up to the Supreme Court.
On May 8, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of the case.
A seven-member panel of the apex court, in a unanimous verdict delivered by Justice Ejembi Eko, invalidated the conviction.
Justice Eko declared that Justice Mohammed Idris, who convicted the duo was already a justice of the Court of Appeal when he ruled and sentenced Mr Kalu and his co-defendant.
He held that a Justice of the Court of Appeal cannot operate as a judge of the Federal High Court, and ordered the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court to reassign the case for trial, the report said.
The apex court said section 396 (7) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015, on which the former president of the court of appeal, Zainab Bulkachuwa, relied on to authorise the trial judge to return to the high court to conclude the trial was unconstitutional.