Itse Sagay, a law professor and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) was aghast and had problem believing that Justice J. Liman, of the Federal High Court in Benin, Edo State, on Thursday sentenced Michael Igbinedion, a younger brother to former governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion to two years in prison with an option of a N3 million fine for a N25 billion fraud.
Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES over the phone, Mr. Sagay said Mr. Liman must be “suicidal” for handing down such a “mad” judgement and that he should “kiss his career goodbye”.
“There must be some details we don’t know that made him do that because what I read in the press was that this man was being trialled for N25 billion and he is now fined N3 million and someone who assisted him is now sent to 2 years imprisonment. I say that is not possible. There is something wrong with the story,” he said Monday.
But when told by this reporter that the story was actually factual, his incredibility transformed into shock and then anger.
“Because any judge who does that, we have to begin to question not only his rationality but whether he doesn’t have a death wish. In a country that is on total lock over corruption, over poverty, overall the terrible thing that is going and he goes ahead to do that, it is as if he wants to set himself on fire.
“That is why I have my doubts but if you say so it means the man has kissed his career goodbye. Is it in Buhari time he is going to try this? That will be madness. That is how I see it. I hope it is not true but if it is true, obviously it is more than just kissing his job goodbye, he is going to bring himself so much trouble that he would not know where he is in the days to come,” he said.
After convicting Michael Igbinedion of stealing N25 billion of public fund on Wednesday, the following day, Mr. Liman gave Mr. Igbinedion an option of N1 million fine on each of the three counts for which he was convicted and in default, two years imprisonment.
He however, sentenced a co-accused of Mr. Igbinedion, Patrick Eboigbodin of PML Nigeria Limited, to two years in prison without an option of fine. The judge ordered PML to pay N1 million on each of the ten counts for which it was convicted. He also liquidated the firm and ordered that all its assets be transferred to the Federal Government.
Mr. Igbinedion and Mr. Eboigbodin were sentenced on different counts.
Also expressing shock at the ruling, Olarenwaju Suraju, Executive Director of Human and Environment Agenda, HEDA, said the judgement defies common sense. According to him the integrity of the judiciary is at stake. He called for steps to be taken to prosecute judges found guilty of corruption in order to stem such frivolous sentencing.
“We cannot allow this to continue because a corrupt judge or a judge without integrity sitting on the bench is worse than an armed robber carrying guns on the street. It is something we actually need to confront now and we much challenge the leadership of the judiciary to reform itself.”
Similarly, Lagos based lawyer, Festus Keyamo, said in order to avoid such ridiculous sentencing in the future the country’s criminal justice system needed to be urgently reviewed.
“I just want to restrict my comment to say that our criminal justice system is in urgent need of reforms so that we can have punishments that are commensurate with the crimes committed. And we can also have a system that delivers justice as quickly as possible,” he said.
The same path was towed by another Lagos lawyer, Jiti Ogunye. Mr. Ogunye said the era of court making ridiculous discretionary ruling will not stop if the leadership of the judiciary across the country does put in place an anti-corruption sentencing policy guideline for judges.
“The judiciary at the level of the NJC or the leadership of the Federal high court or the leadership of our respective state high courts have not evolved or put in place an anti-corruption sentencing policy guideline that will define clearly the parameters of sentencing such that even if there are options of fine in the penalty provisions pursuant to which these persons were charged, such that if there are statutory minimum sentence and statutory maximum sentence there would be a clear cut direction that in such cases, in so far they are anti-corruption cases, the maximum penalty be returned to teach a lesson and possibly without an option of fine,” he said.
He said the judiciary has set a precedent for this when it limited the trial period for terrorism cases to six months. He called for such a regulation to be replicated in anti-corruption cases.
Ezenwa Nwagwu, Convener of the Say No Campaign said while judges could be blamed for misusing their discretionary powers, prosecutors should also make sure that anti-corruption cases are filed properly.
“It boils down under what law the prosecuting agencies present the suspect. If they take the light route, sometimes my sense is that sometimes the prosecutors themselves deliberately present the suspect under a law that allows the judge expend discretionary powers that allows him to go from the minimum to the maximum and once you have discretion, then abuse is very close. So it boils down to ensuring that the prosecutors themselves understand and are not compromised and understand the implications of some of the things that they do. Because sometimes we just push it to the judges. That is not excusing the fact that the judges themselves make light of how serious a matter is by taking a lighter option when they can go for a more deterrent option,” he said.