$1.6million: Court resumes six-year-old alleged stealing trial involving Emirates Airlines, others

Federal High Court, Lagos state. [Photo credit: THISDAYLIVE]

A Lagos Division of the Federal High Court has fixed February 6 and 7 for the resumption of a case of alleged conspiracy and stealing of $1.630 million involving Emirates Airlines and six others.

Mike O’Song, the prosecution counsel, said the offence was committed in 2007 when the complainant, one Chu Ikem Orji, boarded an Emirates Airline in Lagos enroute China.

Joined alongside the airline in the three-count charge were Pathfinder International Ltd, Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc, Abayomi Adekanbi Abiola, Isiaka Adegoke Adedeji, Awonubi Abayomi, and Jennifer Eze.

Others were Obinna Onyeukwu Onyenso, Mohammed Yousouf, George Ikpekhia, and Haffeez Azeem.

The defendants were accused of conspiring and stealing four bags with tag numbers EK 428682, EK 423683, EK 650162, and EK 650161 one of which contained $1.630 million on December 19, 2007 at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos.

The prosecution said the defendants tagged and collected the bags from Mr. Orji.

One of the charges read, “That you, Emirates Airlines, Pathfinders International Limited, Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc, Abayomi Adekambi Abiola, Isiaka Adegoke Adedeji, Awonubi Abayomi, George Ipekhia and others now at large on or about the 19th day of December, 2007 at Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja within the jurisdiction of this honourable court conspired among yourselves to commit a felony to wit: stealing four bags with tag number EK 428682, EK 428583, EK 650162, EK 650161, tagged and collected by you from Prince Chu Ikem Orji, one of which contained the sum of $1,630,000 on the promise of keeping them intact for onward delivery to him at Guangzhou China and thereby committed an offence contrary to and punishable under section 516 of the criminal Code Act, Cap C38, Laws of the federation of Nigeria, 2004.”

The defendants had pleaded not guilty to the charges.

According to Mr. O’Song, upon complaint of non delivery of the bags containing the funds, the Sales Manager of Emirates Airlines, Mr. Adedeji issued a letter of undertaking dated November 2008 and addressed to the commissioner of police special fraud unit promising to produce the missing bags.

Having failed to fulfill the undertaking, the defendants were arraigned in March 2012 before Mohammed Idris, a federal judge.

In July 2012, the defendants filed a motion seeking to quash the charges on the grounds that the charges were an abuse of court process, did not disclose any prima facie case against them, and that the missing funds were proceeds of money laundering.

In his ruling delivered on January 21, 2013, the judge dismissed the motion.

According to Mr. Idris, the court is obliged to conduct summary trial of the accused without proof of evidence, as it is not a requirement for summary trials as provided under Section 33(2) of the Federal High Court Act.

“I am of the view therefore that attaching a proof of evidence to a charge sheet in criminal proceedings instituted before the Federal High Court is an anomaly which should not be allowed to detract from the aim and objective of the summary trial procedure,” said Mr. Idris.

“Arising from the above, I am of the view that the issue whether or not the charges discloses a prima facie case is premature and completely irrelevant. There are no materials before the court to enable it conclude that the charge constitutes an abuse of the process of this court.”

Following the high court’s decision, the defendants filed a notice of appeal in February 2013 to quash the ruling, on two grounds: that the trial judge erred in law when he failed to consider that the subject matter was the proceeds of crime under the Money Laundering Act and when he held that the prosecution did not have to file a proof of evidence relied upon by the accused persons of their preliminary objection.

In his arguments before the appellate court, the appellant’s counsel stated that the alleged owner of the funds, Mr. Orji, had been charged to court for money laundering but that the charges were “strangely withdrawn” on 15 January, 2009.

He added that in November 2009, the federal director of public prosecution forwarded a legal opinion to the office of the Inspector-General of Police exonerating the defendants and recommending Mr. Orji for prosecution.

The three-judge panel at the Court of Appeal comprising Samuel Oseni, Abimbola Obaseki-Adejumo, and Amina Augie (the presiding judge), in a unanimous decision on November 27, 2014, dismissed the appeal.

According to Mr. Oseni, who read the lead judgment, the appellant failed to provide evidence of his claims that the owner of the mission money had been tried and convicted for money laundering.

“It is also not disputed anywhere that the said sum of money is missing and it belongs to Prince Orji,” Mr. Oseni stated in the judgement, a copy of which has been obtained by PREMIUM TIMES.

“Learned counsel for the appellant had also relied heavily on the legal opinion of the Federal DPP, to support his argument that Prince Orji, having been recommended for prosecution under the Money Laundering Act, no charge based on the missing sum should be brought against the appellant because it is the proceed of crime.

“However, I know for sure, at least till this very moment that the law has not changed, neither has the Constitution been amended to alter the provisions of section 36(5), which guarantees that any person charged with the commission of a crime shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

The appellate court agreed with the lower court’s decision that annexing a proof of evidence to a charge sheet is not part of a summary trial as it pertains to the Federal High Court.

“I am therefore inclined to resolve this issue against the appellant. In the final result, I hold that this appeal lacks merit and it is hereby dismissed.

“The ruling of the Federal High Court, Lagos Division delivered by M. B. Idris J. on the 21 January 2013 is hereby affirmed. Given the fact that the charge against the appellant was filed since 2009,it is hereby ordered that the said charge be given accelerated trial by the lower court.”

At the last adjourned date, counsel to the defendants, Awah Kalu, applied that the Attorney-General of the Federation be ordered to produce the document upon which the Appeal Court dismissed their appeal and ordered accelerated hearing.

The application was, however, opposed by the prosecution counsel who claimed that the same application was refused in the civil suit pending before justice Muslim Hassan of the same court.

But Mr. Idris, while granting the defendants’ application, said defendants in criminal proceedings must be accorded all necessary material to enable them prepare for their defence.

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