Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court, Abuja, has withdrawn from the ongoing trial of former Benue governor, Gabriel Suswam.
Mr. Suswam and his former Commissioner for Finance, Omadachi Oklobia, are standing trial on alleged diversion of N3.1 billion, money laundering and breach of public trust.
Mr. Mohammed withdrew from the trial in protest following an allegation by an online medium, the SaharaReporters, that he had been compromised by the defendants to give judgment in their favour.
At the resumed hearing on Monday, the judge raised the issue of the publication by SaharaReporters.
He claimed that his image as a judge and that of the Federal High Court as an institution had been brought to disrepute in the eyes of the ordinary Nigerian.
“My attention has been drawn to a publication stating that the first defendant in this matter entered into a financial agreement with me to give him a soft landing in this case,” Mr. Mohammed said.
He said the court had been caught in between two devils because whichever side was favoured in his judgment at the end of the trial, the issue of the publication could be used to justify or rubbish the decision.
He said it was in the interest of justice that he stepped down from the trial for another judge to adjudicate on the matter in the interest of public confidence.
“It is correct to say that the publication should not be taken seriously because it is the trend these days to accuse the judge handling a matter of all sorts of wrong doings.
“It has happened to the learned justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the Court of Appeal.
“My worry, which is fundamental, is that justice or the fairness of it is not as the judge or the prosecution or the defence see it.
“No, it is that a reasonable man sees it as being fair,” he said.
He subsequently announced his withdrawal from the trial and the transfer of the case file to the Chief Judge of the Court, Justice Ibrahim Auta, for reassignment.
The prosecuting counsel, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN), and defence counsel, Joseph Daudu, Oklobia, F. R Onoja, had prevailed on the judge to discountenance the publication and proceed with the trial.
Mr. Jacobs noted that no court had been spared by the said media organisation.
“The same source has claimed that I collected money from a person I am prosecuting. If my Lord takes into account all these, it would be difficult to go on with the case.
“On the side of the prosecution, I urge my lord to continue as we have full confidence in your lordship to do justice.
“It will cost the state more money if my lord withdraws because we will have to bring back all the witnesses from Lagos and Benue.”
He he googled himself in the last few weeks and found at least 10 lies published against him by the organisation.
“If my lord takes this publication too seriously, the next judge too will be open to that cheap blackmail.
Mr. Daudu also said that his team had full confidence in the judge and that it would be traumatic to begin the case afresh with a new judge.
Mr. Onoja aligned himself with the arguments of Messrs Jacobs and Daudu.
He added that it was his strong belief that the publication was the handiwork of mischief makers who were bent on truncating the trial.
Mr. Onoja said that it would cost a lot of hardship on the second defendant if judge took the publication seriously and withdrew from the trial.
The judge was however not assuaged by their appeal.
In a report titled, “How former Governor Gabriel Suswam bribed Justice Mohammed for a soft landing in corruption trial,” SaharaReporters had alleged that the judge entered into an illegal financial agreement to give Mr. Suswam a “soft landing.”
The newspaper also accused Mr. Suswam of not only meeting the trial judge but also indirectly bribing him by “picking the medical bills of a relative” last year to secure “lenient bail conditions.”
The paper reported that as early as October 2015, Mr. Suswam had started plotting to compromise the imminent proceedings against him by the EFCC.
According to the report, the former governor further promised to bribe the judge with various sums in local and foreign currencies to get “soft landing.”
But in his reaction to the publication, Mr. Suswam denied the allegations, saying he had never met the said judge outside the courtroom.
Part of the statement reads, “I want to state in very unmistakable terms that the entire report published lavishly by Sahara Reporters is completely false, highly malicious, wicked and lacking in the least measure of facts and truth.
“It is a fabrication from the professional indiscretion and warped imagination of the Sahara Reporters news writers.
“For the avoidance of doubt, I wish to state with all the power of truth at my disposal that I have never met the judge in question outside the court room neither do I have his telephone contact with which to send the alleged text messages.
“So for anybody to insinuate or directly allege that I am engaged in any form of negotiation with the judge to secure the so called “soft landing” is grossly untrue as such a situation does not exist and will never exist.
“I wish to use this medium to tell Nigerians that I have never tried in any way directly or indirectly to meet the said honourable judge or any other judicial officer in all my life in public service to secure a favourable decision and I have no intention to do so.”
Credit: All Africa