Two courts in Makurdi, Benue State, on Friday heard part of the defence of a couple standing trial regarding the alleged rape and subsequent death of 13-year-old Ochanya Ogbanje, the news of which sparked public outrage in 2018.
Andrew Ogbuja, a Benue State Polytechnic lecturer, is standing trial before the Benue State High Court in Makurdi for allegedly raping Ochanya serially that she fell sick and later died of ailments attributable to prolonged sexual exploitation in October 2018.
His wife, Felicia Ochiga-Ogbuja, also an employee of the polytechnic, faces separate charges at the Federal High Court in Makurdi for negligence by allegedly failing to take action to stop the sexual exploitation of the minor by her husband, and son, Victor Ogbuja, who is said to be on the run.
Ochanya, until her death, a JSS1 pupil of the Federal Government Girls College, Gboko, Benue State, was Mrs Ochiga-Ogbuja’s maternal niece, and had lived with the family during her primary school years in Ugbokolo, the town where the state polytechnic is located.
Mr Ogbuja, a senior lecturer at the Department of Catering and Hotel Management at the state polytechnic, and his son, Victor, a final year student at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, until his disappearance, allegedly raped the girl between 2014 and 2018 while the minor was living with the family.
Ochanya was said to have later fallen sick with ailments allegedly attributable to the prolonged rape by the two grown-ups.
She was admitted at the Federal Medical Centre in Makurdi for two months before she died in October 2018.
While Mr Ogbuja is detained in prison from where he attends his trial, Victor remains at large. Mrs Ochiga-Ogbuja, on her part, was granted bail by the court where she is being prosecuted.
As the police manhunt for Victor had yet to yield any result, the Benue government on October 10, 2019, arraigned 54-year-old Mr Ogbuja before the Makurdi High Court on four counts bordering on rape and Ochanya’s death.
Defence hearing starts
PREMIUM TIMES gathered from reporters monitoring the trial that the Mr Ogbuja, who is on suspension by the polytechnic, opened his defence on Friday, after the Benue State prosecutors closed their case in August.
The prosecutors had closed their case after playing a video clip in court showing the last moments of the deceased schoolgirl speaking of how Mr Ogbuja and his son allegedly raped her serially until she fell ill and was later admitted in the hospital.
The state’s Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Peter Ukande, who got the court’s permission to play the video recording, told the judge, Augustine Ityonyiman, that the deceased teenager was interviewed on court premises in August 2018 when Mr Ogbuja was first arraigned at an Upper Area Court in Makurdi in connection with the rape allegation.
Ochanya was said to have later died in October 2018.
Mr Ogbuja had denied the charges, and his case has now been adjourned till
November 12 for continuation of his defence.
Wife closes defence
Meanwhile, Mrs Ochiga-Ogbuja also opened his defence and closed it after calling her elder sister, Ann Ochigia, as her only defence witness at the Federal High Court in Makurdi on Friday.
The defendant, now 45, who was arraigned by the National Agency for the Prohibition Trafficking In Persons (NAPTIP) in 2019, had told the court of her intention to enter a plea-bargain agreement with the prosecution, before making a U-turn when talks between the parties collapsed.
Led in evidence by the defence lawyer, David Ojile, Ms Ochigia confirmed that Ochanya began living with the Ogbujas when she was five years old.
The witness said she was not sleeping in the same room with the deceased Ochanya “to know what was happening to her at nights”.
Under cross-examination by the prosecuting counsel, Mary Fagwam, the 57-year-old witness, spoke of how Ochanya started to fall ill.
“Ochanya started feeling sick and was taken to a healthcare centre at Ugbokolo (in Benue State), and her mother (Rose Abah) was in the village.
“I followed her to hospital the first time but subsequently, I did not follow. Ochanya was taken to Federal Medical Centre Makurdi, too,” Ms Ochiga told the court, adding that she was not aware of the late teenager’s debilitating health conditions.
She was asked whether she knew the whereabouts of Mr Ogbuja and his son, Victor.
Responding, the defence witness said Mr Ogbuja was in prison while his son, Victor, was still at large.
The suit was adjourned till November 12 for adoption of final written addresses.
The Federal High Court had on June 25, 2020, dismissed Mrs Ochiga-Ogbuja’s no-case-submission in the case.
In the suit marked: FHC/MKD/CR/12/2019, the prosecution alleged that the defendant “did omit to take action against the sexual exploitation of one Elizabeth Ochanya Ogbanje (Female) 13 years by your husband, Andrew Ogbuja and your son, Victor Ogbuja” between 2014 and 2018.
The offence is contrary to section 13 (4) (b) of the Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Enforcement and Administration Act, 2015.
In another count, the prosecution alleged that she “did keep, detain or harbour one Elizabeth Ochanya Ogbanje (Female) 13 years, knowing that she is likely to be sexually exploited by your husband, Andrew Ogbuja and your son, Victor Ogbuja, thereby committing an offence contrary to Section 15 (b) of the Trafficking in Persons Prohibition Enforcement and Administration Act, 2015.”
The court had dismissed her no-case submission which she filed after
NAPTIP called a total of six witnesses.
Prosecution witnesses called by NAPTIP included a medical expert from the Benue State University Teaching Hospital, Makurdi, and family members of the deceased teenager.
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