Former Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike, was, on Friday, arraigned before Justice A.O Onovo of the Enugu State High Court. The arraignment was accompanied by drama, as journalists, who arrived the court early, had a hard time before being allowed to take photographs and make video recording.
At about 8:50am, a journalist approached the Court Registrar, Mrs. Mbah, seeking permission to take photographs. She, however, asked him to seek permission from higher authorities.
The journalists began taking pictures and making video recordings, but were yelled at by lawyers, including Messrs. Gab Agu, Ofoma Agbo and Emmanuel Onyibor, who asked them not to do so. This led to an angry exchange. The journalists, however, insisted that they have the right to take photographs before the commencement of the court sitting.
The court began sitting at 9:25am, with Messrs Wahab Shittu and N.T Ukoh representing the prosecution in the suit (No: EHC/ 74C/ 2017). Justice Umezulike, who is facing a four-count charge of corruption, was represented by Messrs. Agu G. Agu, G. Ofoha Agbo and G.C Nwafor.
In his preliminary remark, Mr. Agu requested the court to allow the Justice Umezulike to sit, saying Mr. Shittu should know that the defendant bears the title “Honourable Justice” and that it was improper to have stripped him of the title in the charge sheet.
Mr. Shittu replied that the prosecution has no intention to strip the defendant of his revered title. He applied to have the title affixed to his name and stated that he is prosecuting the case with reverence to the defendant.
The court granted the application that Justice Umezulike’s name be prefixed with the title.
Mr. Shittu then informed the court that there was a piece of information dated the 28 March 2017 and applied that the information be read to Justice Umezulike to take his plea. This drew no objection form Mr. Agu. The Registrar read the information and the defendant pleaded “not guilty”.
Mr. Shittu then applied for a trial date, stating that the prosecution has listed seven witnesses on record. Justice Onovo asked if the prosecution was ready to start and stated that for the purpose of the case, he would be sitting on Fridays.
Mr. Agu stated that the defence team has an application before the court, a motion for bail filed on 8 May, along with a further affidavit filed on 2 June. Mr. Shittu maintained that notwithstanding the counter- affidavit filed, he did not think it was proper to oppose the bail application, given the defendant’s status. Mr. Agu asked that the term of the bail should be self-recognizance, stating that there is a case against the accused at the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt and he was granted bail on the same term. He added that Justice Umezulike has been attending court sessions despite the absence of the prosecution over five times.
The prosecution reiterated that it was not opposed to the bail on grounds of self- recognizance and that it is focused on accelerated proceedings. He also served the defence counsel with proof of evidence in court.
Justice Onovo ruled that the bail application was not objected to and Justice Umezulike’s counsel stated that his client has been attending his trial at the Federal High Court, which had earlier granted him bail on self-recognizance despite the absence of the prosecution on more than five occasions. The defendant, added Justice Onovo, is the immediate past Chief Judge of Enugu State. “The application, therefore, succeeds. The accused is, therefore, granted bail to the tune if ₦1million on self-recognizance.
Mr. Agu applied to the court to order journalists to avoid sensationalism and media trial. While agreeing with Mr. Agu, Mr. Shittu stated that the media must not be prevented from their job.
The court then directed that journalists may only take photographs and make video recordings before 8:30am and not any more till the next day. They are also not to take photographs and make video recordings after the court has risen.
Justice Onovo adjourned to October 26 and 27 as well as November 2 and 3 for definite hearing.
Justice Umezulike was sacked last year by the National Judicial Council (NJC), following reports of alleged involvement in fraud and other corruption-related activities. In a statement signed by its spokesperson, Mr. Soji Oye, the NJC said the former Chief Judge accepted N10 million in gifts from individuals on whose cases he was adjudicating, making disparaging remarks unbecoming of a judicial officer and abusing his judicial powers in a variety of cases.
“There have been many instances of abuse of judicial powers, by Mr. Umezulike, particularly against the two defendants in Suits Nos. E/6/2013 and E/88/2016. The Chief Judge clung to these two suits to remain in his court, despite all genuine efforts made by the defendants to get the suits transferred to another court,” said the NJC.