By Abdulaziz Salisu
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, suffered a major setback in the trial of Nicholas Ashinze and three others in an alleged N3billion unlawful transfer as the Federal High Court in Abuja suspended the case over an alleged falsehood and media trial engaged by the anti-graft agency against the military officer.
Mr Ashinze, a serving colonel, was Military Assistant to former National Security Adviser, retired colonel Sambo Dasuki.
Counsel to Mr Ashinze, Ernest Nwoye, had at the resumed trial protested the press statement issued by EFCC in which the defendant was reported to have been indicted by the court for diverting and misappropriating a whopping sum of N36billion.
Apart from the alleged N36bn said to have been diverted and misappropriated, the EFCC statement also referred to Mr Ashinze as a retired officer.
The counsel, who drew the attention of Justice Gabriel Kolawole to the offending EFCC press statement, tendered the statement and the newspaper publications at the court to establish bias and misrepresentation of the court proceeding of March 7, 2017 by the anti-graft agency.
Mr Nwoye told the judge that Mr Ashinze was never charged by EFCC for any offence on N36billion diversion and misappropriation and wondered where EFCC Media team, that was not present in the court, got its proceeding that the defendant had been indicted for the amount.
The counsel urged the court to frown at media trial the defendant is being subjected to as such action if not checked, will lead to misrepresentation of facts by the general public.
Mr Nwoye also tendered newspaper publications that emanated from the EFCC press statement issued by Wilson Uwujare who claimed to be the Head of Media and Publicity in the EFCC.
Mr Nwoye said both the complainant and the defendant are bound by court records of proceeding and any attempt by one of the parties to concoct lies to prejudice the order is against the rule of law and natural justice.
Justice Kolawole, who was taken aback by the EFCC’s press statement, asked the EFCC counsel, Ofem Uket, if he was aware of the press statement and if he ever issued any.
The EFCC counsel denied ever granting press interview in respect of the trial but admitted receiving letter of complaint from Mr Nwoye and that he consulted with EFCC and discovered that the press statement was actually released to the media.
Mr Uket, in his defence said contrary to the charge of N3billion alleged transfer, evidence from witnesses have shown that about N5billion was involved.
However, Justice Kolawole, who was not impressed by the argument of the EFCC’s counsel, told him that the proceeding would have to stop pending the time the EFCC put its house in order by stopping to mislead the public on court proceedings.
Justice Kolawole in a short ruling on the protest from Mr Nwoye said “it is unfair for EFCC as a complainant in this trial to resort to self-help by engaging the defendant in the media trial at the same time in the court trial.
“If you want to try the defendant in the media, you have to limit yourself to the media. You have to stop misleading the public in the fact of this trial. Let me say it for the sake of emphasis that EFCC must stop the use of journalists to distort proceedings in my court. You cannot be engaging in two trial: one in the court and one in the media at the same time. If you are not satisfied with my decision to stop this trial pending the time the EFCC retract this offending press statement of my court proceeding, then you can take your case to another court
“This press statement by one Wilson Uwujare who claimed to be from EFCC is scandalous and prejudice to fair trial of the defendant in this matter.
“In order to prevent media and court trial at the same time with one misrepresenting the order, I have stopped this trial pending the time the EFCC retracts the offending press statement. The trial of the defendant has nothing to do with N36billion diversion and misappropriation.
“The retraction has to be done between now and April 13, 2017. And this EFCC witness is hereby ordered to step down from the witness box and come back on April 13, 2017
“The court proper proceeding cannot materialise where records and facts of the case are being distorted by EFCC that is even the complainant in the matter.”
It would recalled the EFCC, had arraigned the quartet of Mr Ashinze; an Austrian, Wolfgang Reinl; Edidiong Idiong and Sagir D. Mohammed before Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court, Abuja on a 13-count charge of corruption and money laundering to the tune of N3.1bn.
The defendants however denied the charges preferred against them. Mr Ashinze and other defendants were arraigned alongside five companies accused of allegedly diverting huge sums from the office of the former NSA.
The companies are: Geonel Integrated Services Limited, Unity Continental Nigeria Limited, Helpline Organization, Vibrant Resource Limited and Sologic Integrated Services Limited.