From Godwin Tsa, Abuja
Lawyers yesterday tackled President Muhammadu Buhari over his comment that the judiciary was frustrating the speedy determination of corruption cases.
President Buhari on Monday said the judiciary was yet to perform its functions to the satisfaction of Nigerians inspite of the reforms brought about by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
Speaking at the National Judicial Institute, Abuja, while declaring open a workshop for Nigerian Judges organized by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption in conjunction with the NJI, the president said the Judiciary must take steps to ensure that it was not perceived as being partisan.
But reacting, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said the prosecution of criminal cases follows due processes and laid down procedures recognised by law before arriving at conviction.
Besides, president of the NBA, Mr. Austin Alegeh (SAN) said an enabling environment must be put in place for judges to perform optimally in the discharge of their duties.
“The president should put some things in place for the judiciary to perform its role without inhibitions.
“In other climes, you don’t necessarily need to bring an accused person to court before his trial can continue. There are cameras that connect an accused person from prison to court so that he doesn’t need to come to court.
“Here, there are no such facilities and the Federal Government who is expected to produce an accused person in court sometimes don’t do that. In such a situation, Judges and lawyers will be waiting for an accused who is being held in custody by the Federal Government. This is the same Federal Government that wants corruption cases to be speedily dispensed with.
“A classical example is the trial of the former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki who on several occasions, government refused to bring to court.
“In this same country, our Judges are till taking notes in long hand instead of by electronic sytstem. These and many more are the problems working against the speedy trial of corruption cases. I can say that the judiciary is doing its best within its available resources and working environment.”
Mr. Joe Agi (SAN) shared the position of the NBA president.
“Under our law, every accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a competent court of law. You cannot just come to court and the court will say okay you are guilty, go to prison.
“The entire administration of former criminal system starts from the commission of crime, investigating the crime, arresting the suspect and taking him to court. And so, the judiciary alone, without the support of the prosecution and defence counsel, can do nothing.
“So, Mr. President should blame the system which include the Executive and Judiciary, and the lawyers as well. So, it is not just the judiciary problem at all.
“In addition, I am sure you are a witness to a situation where an accused person is being charged on 200-count. This makes the whole thing looks like a child’s play. By the time you finish reading count one and goes to the next one, the Judge may have forgotten about the first one.
“The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should look at the offences and make it more concise.
If you charge a man with 40-count, at the end of the day, the witnesses will start giving contradictory evidence and the defence counsel will capitalise on such contradictions and get judgments for their clients. This is not the fault of the judiciary.
“I always say this and I will repeat it, EFCC and other law enforcement agencies will do the nation and society a lot of good if they operate within the ambit of the law which say investigation before arrest.
“Here, you find them arresting someone before investigations are conducted. So the problem is squarely that of the investigation agencies prosecution; let them do their homework well and then trial will be concluded within six months.”
In his reaction, Mr. Amobi Nzelu said President Buhari only expressed his personal opinion on the matter, noting that criminal trials operate within a written law which must be followed by Judges to arrived in conviction or an acquittal.
“It is better for 40 criminals to go unpublished than to convict an innocent person,” he said.
Nzelu who lauded the anti-corruption war of President, said the judiciary was doing its best.
“I appreciate what Buhari is doing and I doff my cap for him for touching those who were perceived to be untouchable. There was massive corruption, the country was looted dry and people are now in pains as a result, but he (Buhari) should be patient and allow the judiciary to do its work. The three arms of government are inter- independent and no one should be seen as trying to undermine the other.”
Another lawyer, Vincent Otaokpukpu said the judiciary was not the only stakeholders in the administration of criminal justice and therefore cannot take the blame alone.
He posited that other stakeholders including the police, EFCC, prosecution and prison should share in the blame as they contribute in the delay of cases in court.
“I don’t see the judiciary as the problem because there are constitutional rights of an accused person standing trial in court. For instance the constitution allows him adequate time prepare for his defence as well as fair hearing. So, the Judge has a duty to balance the interest of justice and the constitutional rights of an accused person. It is not a one way thing like going to the market to buy some items. In any case, justice hasten is justice denied.”