The Federal High Court sitting in Abuja has fixed April 8 for hearing of the application filed by the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh, asking Justice Okon Abang to disqualify himself on the grounds that he would not get justice from him.
Yesterday, Justice Abang adjourned the case but warned that it would be the last time he would grant adjournment on the case.
According to him, Section 396 (4) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act stipulates that hearing of cases should be on a daily basis.
Metuh had filed an application dated March 22, asking the judge to disqualify himself and return the case file to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.
The second application also asked the court to stay proceedings pending the decision of the Court of Appeal.
Metuh, through one of his counsel, Emeka Etiaba (SAN), had on March 16 petitioned the Chief Judge, Justice Ibrahim Auta, urging him to transfer the case to another judge for fear that he might not get justice from Justice Abang’s court.
Metuh was expected to open defence but the issue of the petition and the fact that his lead counsel, Onyechi Ikpeazu, (SAN), was not on ground, made the court to adjourn the case till Wednesday.
The counsel, including Ikpeazu, were however in court on Wednesday but were told by the court registrars that all the cases scheduled for the day had been adjourned till yesterday as the judges were attending a seminar.
At the resumed hearing, Etiaba asked the court for an adjournment to enable the lead counsel, Ikpeazu, recover fully.
He further told the court that Ikpeazu was in court on Wednesday with heavy and black eyes resulting from the surgery he underwent at the First Eye Clinic in Abuja.
Etiaba added that the issue of the surgery had previously been discussed with the prosecutor.
According to him, Ikpeazu had to remove his sunshade for a full view of the state of his two eyes by the prosecution.
“This court did not sit yesterday (Wednesday) and pursuant to evaluation of the eyes, he was constrained to write a letter to the court on the reason he was unable to appear today (Thursday),” he said.
He also wrote that the other counsel in the matter would be proceeding on Easter vacation.
“This morning, I received calls directing me to proceed to attend this court session as a matter of respect for the court, knowing that the letter he wrote was not received by the court,” Etiaba said.
But Abang stated that if there be any need to apply for adjournment, the person has to come to court and table same when the case is called. The judge said he would not receive such letter of adjournment in chambers.
“I cannot receive letter of adjournment in chambers. The registrar ought not to have received the letter. The court is not a party to this matter and also, the chambers is not a post office.”
Etiaba in his response said: “The record I know is that letter for an adjournment is forwarded in advance before the case is mentioned. It was when we could not forward the letter before this morning that the decision to forward it through the deputy court registrar was taken and executed.
“I therefore abandoned my family at the airport and proceeded to dress up and proceed to the court. In line with the letter of my lead counsel, I would pray the court to grant us an adjournment to enable him appear before this court and proceed with the case of the defendant.”
At this point, the judge raised the two letters dated March 22 and filed the same day by Metuh, asking the judge to disqualify himself from the case and return the file to the Chief Judge as well as to adjourn proceedings to enable the Court of Appeal decide on the issue.
Having said so, he demanded to know from Etiaba what should be done with the applications.
His argument was, having applied for disqualification of the court, transfer of file and stay of action pending Appeal Court decision, would it still be possible for him to rule on the application for adjournment?
But cleverly, Etiba declined direct response, stressing that any answer he would give would over-reach Ikpeazu’s letter.
“I would rather ask you to determine the fate of the letter since I am not allowed to take decision on it,” he said.
On his part, the prosecution counsel, Sylvanus Tahir, confirmed that he was served the letter seeking adjournment around 8.33a.m.
He said: “Starting from the letter, I hereby confirm that the prosecution was around 8.33 am, served with a letter dated March 22 from the lead defence counsel and the information given by Etiaba was contained therein.
“Secondly, I did confirm the motion dated March 22 and filed same day and served on us on March 23 in the afternoon, asking for stay of proceedings. However, I express utter ignorant of the motion asking you to suspend yourself. I am not aware of that. My simple comment on the letter by Ikpeazu, asking for an adjournment to April 13, 14, 20 or 21 is to oppose it.
“Our reaction is to oppose the application vehemently. I refer the court to what transpired at the last adjournment on March 17.
“On that day, one of the most senior advocates in this country, Ifedayo Adedipe, put up an appearance for the defendant and an application for adjournment was sought and the prosecution reluctantly conceded after Adedipe gave an undertaken that he would be in court to lead the defense should the lead counsel not be in court.
“Here we are today, neither the lead defence counsel nor Adedipe is in court. The court is here being confronted with a letter seeking adjournment. The impression is being created that without the lead counsel, the wheels of justice is being grounded.”
But Justice Abang asked, “You said you have not been served the motion asking the court to disqualify itself but you know it subsists. What do you want to do with that motion? We cannot take decision on adjournment before the decision on adjournment.”
Responding, Tahir explained that normally, the prosecution ought to be served with the particular letter asking the court to disqualify itself.
At that instance, he was handed the letter by one of Metuh’s counsel, Chuks Nwosu.
But, Tahir quickly notified the court that he had been served but insisted that he would have to respond officially as required.
“I now say that the defendant has just served me the motion. In view of this, I am entitled to respond. As a matter of practice, I am entitled to reply or let them go ahead to move the motion. I submit that whatever the allegations or reasons they have in this matter, we are an interested party.
“Throughout the course of this trial, there has not been allegation of bias, no allegation of the first defendant being a classmate of the Judge. All of a sudden, some forces are trying to cause the plain to crash land. At the appropriate time, we will address the court.”
Justice Abang adjourned the case till April 8, at the instant of the defendant.