Justice Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court in Abuja has fixed April 25 for ruling on whether or not to review her earlier order allowing the shielding of the prosecution’s witnesses in the trial of four Biafra agitators, including Nnamdi Kanu.
Security was heavy at the court, which was filled up with the defendants’ sympathisers, among them traditional rulers, priests and elders.
Justice Nyako chose the date after listening to arguments from lawyers to the parties in the case in relation to an application by the defence for the court to review its ruling on the protection of witnesses.
Kanu, Chidiebere Onwudiwe, Benjamin Madubugwu and David Nwawuisi are being tried on an amended 11-count charge.
On December 13, last year, Justice Nyako granted the prosecution’s request that its witnesses’ identity be shielded from the public as a form of protection for them, because most of the witnesses are members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the group headed by Kanu.
Yesterday, Kanu’s lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor urged the court to review its December 13 ruling since the nature of the case has changed with the striking out of charges relating to terrorism in the court’s last ruling.
Ejiofor argued that since terrorism charge has been struck out in the charge, there was need to review the ruling which gave the prosecution the right to shield witnesses.
He said the Terrorism Act allows the prosecution to seek leave to protect witnesses, but that since his client was no longer charged with terrorism, it was appropriate for the court to set aside the order of December 13, 2016.
Ejiofor said: “An accused who is not standing trial on offences not mentioned in that section can be tried in the open court.”
Another defence lawyer, Emmanuel Esene, cited Section 36 (4) of the 1999 Constitution as amended as saying that defendants standing trial on criminal cases should be tried in open court.
Esene said: “When the order (to shield witnesses) was made, terrorism charge was included; now you my lordship struck out the charge against the defendants, that order should be vacated.”
Another member of the defence team, Chukwuma Ozougwu, counsel to the fourth defendant, urged the court to note that everybody before the court was equal and should be treated equally.
Ozougwu said: “On what basis is the prosecution opposing the application for open trial. The prosecution counsel has not given enough reasons why my application should be refused.
“No basis, no foundation for opposing the application. Justice should not only be seen to be done but should not also be clouded in darkness. For interest of justice, I urge the court to grant my application”, Ozougwu held.
Prosecuting lawyer Shuaibu Labaran urged the court to dismiss the defendants’ application, describing it frivolous, lacking in merit and an attempt to slow down the progress of the case.
Labaran drew the attention of the court to Section 232 (4) of the Administration of the Criminal Act (ACJA), which gives a judge discretion to determine whether or not a witness in a case deserves protection.
Supporters not allowed to access the court premises stood outside the court’s main entrance while proceedings lasted.
With banners bearing IPOB logo and insignia, they chanted solidarity songs in Igbo language under the watchful eyes of security men.