Former Delta state governor, James Onanefe Ibori, suffered several significant setbacks in a London court today at a hearing on the charges of money laundering and fraud he is facing, even as he pleaded not guilty to them.
First, despite the laborious efforts of his defence team, Ibori failed to have the case thrown out. Next, the judge rejected his plea to dispense with the jury in the case, and also threw out the argument of the defence that a British court lacks the jurisdiction to try the accused.
Mr Ibori and another businessman, Ellias Preko, are charged with 14 counts relating to money the prosecution says was stolen from the treasury of the Delta State Government and laundered in the UK.
The man, who was a leading Governor in the Niger Delta and who bankrolled the election of Umaru Yar'Adua, inflated contracts for state services, operated fraudulent companies to launder the money in a British tax haven and bought property in London, the prosecution says.
Mr Ibori has been in custody since being extradited from Dubai in April. The wife, mistress and lawyer of the former lynchpin of the People's Democratic Party were convicted of money laundering and fraud in two previous, linked, trials.
But Mr Ibori's defence team argued that the case should be thrown out. And as we reported earlier today, Mr. Ibori’s associates had in advance of today’s hearing embarked on a scorched-earth propaganda campaign using several online sites to attempt to create the impression that the case against the former governor was close to collapsing. The rogue websites and blogs participating in the campaign alleged, among others, that the case against Ibori had been found to be tenuous, and that even officers of the London Metropolitan Police had accepted bribes from the disgraced former governor.
Today, however, the judge rejected all of the arguments raised by the defence. The hearing followed a week of arguments about the legal basis of the prosecution's case and the judge's rejection of those arguments represents a significant blow to his defence team.
The defence say they believe the prosecution will rely on Mr Ibori's remarkable "rags to riches" life story to indicate criminal behaviour, rather than prove specific thefts.
They hold that in order for Mr Ibori to be convicted in the UK, the prosecution should have to prove Mr Ibori committed specific crimes in Nigeria.
Defence barrister Benjamin Aina told the court, "The prosecution must prove the offence occurred in Delta State, This lifestyle approach, suggesting an 'irresistible inference' of rags to riches is not permissible for the actor himself."
n two previous trials, the jury drew an "irresistible inference" that Mr Ibori's co-conspirators were guilty of conspiring to launder stolen money. "Where the court is dealing with the principal, that approach cannot be enough," said Mr Aina. "A robber must be proved to have robbed."
But the prosecution points out that British law requires they can show an "irresistible inference" that his behaviour, and that of his co-conspirators, was criminal in order for a jury to decide a conviction for money laundering in the UK.
In addition, they will seek to prove that between 1999 and 2007, Mr Ibori committed a number of specific criminal acts, in Britain and in Nigeria.
Judge Anthony Pitts told the court, "Parliament, when it set down the law intended to make it easier, not harder, for money-launderers to be prosecuted. To agree to this would be to set the bar too high."
Mr Aina suggested that the case would be going ahead under "an error in legal basis" which would be the foundation of a subsequent appeal.
With reference to the trial by a jury, the argument of the defence was that coverage of this and previous trials by Nigerian Media and Saharareporters had prejudiced the possibility of a fair trial for Mr Ibori.
But Judge Pitts, unimpressed, described that argument as "too pessimistic". He noted, "There has only been one Judge-alone trial, and this is not suitable to be the second.”
The charges against Mr Ibori and his co-defendant Ellias Preko are as follows:
1. Conspiracy to defraud under common law. Between June 1999 and May 2007 Mr Ibori conspired to defraud Delta State Government with inflated price frauds in respect to a sports track at a stadium, invoices for government vehicles, and also accused of taking an amount of cash which he converted it to his own personal use. Mr Ibori is also accused of running two undeclared businesses while in office.
2. Money Laundering. Between 1999 and 2003 Mr Ibori is accused of hiding the proceeds of criminal conduct for the avoidance of prosecution.
3. Money Laundering. Between 2003 and 2007 Mr Ibori is accused of arranging and facilitating accounts for the use and control of the proceeds of criminal conduct.
4. Fraud and deception. Mr Ibori is accused of arranging a fraudulent loan in 1999 to buy a property in London using false information about himself in order to hide previous convictions for theft and fraud.
5. Money Laundering. In 2001 Mr Ibori is accused of buying a property in the expensive London suburb of Hampstead with cash that he received from criminal conduct.
6. Money Laundering. Mr Ibori is also accused of buying a flat in Harrow with the proceeds of criminal conduct, for the purpose of hiding the money.
7. Money Laundering. Mr Ibori is accused of using an account set up by a solicitor's firm as his personal bank account, into which he placed the proceeds of crime.
8. Money Laundering. August 2005 Mr Ibori is accused of buying a house in Shaftsbury, Dorset with the proceeds of criminal activity in order to hide it.
9. Money Laundering. Mr Ibori is accused of attempting to buy a Challenger Jet from Bombardier Ltd between 2005 and 2007.
10. Money Laundering. Ellias Preko is accused of running two corporations between 2000 and 2003 based in the British Tax Haven of Guernsey funded with the proceeds of crime on behalf of James Ibori.
11. Mr Ibori is accused of involvement with the same companies between 2003 and 2005.
12. Mr Ibori and Mr Preko are accused of running a further three companies based in Guernsey for the purposes of acquisition, control and retention of criminal proceeds.
13. Forgery. Mr Preko is accused of signing documents in 2004 on behalf of two companies when he was not authorised to.
14. Forgery Mr Preko is accused of signing documents on behalf of another company in 2004 without authorisation.
The trial will resume on February 13, 2012, on the eve of Valentine’s Day; Mr. Ibori’s wife, Theresa Nkoyo, is already serving five years in jail.
Some other accomplices of Mr. Ibori’s are also in prison in the country serving five-year sentences each after they were found guilty of aiding and abetting him in his money laundering schemes. They include his sister, Christine Ibie-Ibori and his mistress, Udoamaka Okonkwo (nee Onuigbo). One of his UK lawyers, Bhadresh Gohil, was handed a 10-year sentence last April 1 which will run side by side with a previous 7-year conviction.