Ade Adesomoju, Abuja
The Code of Conduct Tribunal on Tuesday struck out the false assets declaration charges instituted against a serving Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta.
Striking out the charges, the CCT two-man panel led by Danladi Umar held that its “hands are tied” as it had no choice but to terminate the trial in deference to the precedent set by the Court of Appeal on an issue raised in Ngwuta’s case.
The CCT’s decision came less than two months after the Federal High Court in Abuja struck out money laundering and passport fraud charges against the Justice of the Supreme Court.
The two sets of charges were filed against Justice Ngwuta in the aftermath of the recovery of large sums of cash in local and foreign currencies, documents and posh cars, from his homes in October 2016.
The items were recovered by the operatives of the Department of the State Services.
The houses of about five other judges were also simultaneously raided in the operations in Abuja and other parts of the country.
Though the two rulings delivered on March 23, 2018, and on Tuesday ended Justice Ngwuta’s trials, the courts did not acquit him of the charges.
The two courts only struck out the charges on technical grounds rather than on the facts of the cases.
Freeing him of the criminal charges filed against him in the two cases, the Federal High Court and the CCT ruled that a serving judge could not be investigated or prosecuted without first being disciplined by the National Judicial Council.
The two courts were, in their decisions, adopting the earlier judgment of the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, which on December 12, 2017, terminated the corruption charges instituted against a serving judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Hyeldzira Nganjiwa.
The Court of Appeal upheld the Nganjiwa’s preliminary objection earlier dismissed by the High Court of Lagos State, where he was being tried.
The Court of Appeal had ruled that Nganjiwa could not be investigated or prosecuted by any law enforcement agency until he was disciplined by the NJC.
Justice Ngwuta had subsequently filed the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Nganjiwa’s case before the Federal High Court and the CCT, urging both courts to be bound by the superior court’s decision.
The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court where the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation was prosecuting him had, in its ruling delivered on March 23, 2018, upheld Justice Ngwuta’s application by striking out the charges, even though the prosecution had called four witnesses.
Upholding the decision of the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, a member of the two-man bench, William Atedze, who read the CCT’s lead ruling, said Justice Ngwuta’s application had merit.
However, the panel agreed with the contention by the prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Abeni Mohammed (SAN), who argued that Ngwuta, as a judge, was a public officer, the status which qualified him to be tried before the CCT.
But the CCT held that the contention by the AGF office did not constitute sufficient grounds to deviate from the decision of the Court of Appeal.
The CCT member ruled, “In resolving issues raised by parties in this application, it is hereby held that the defendant/applicant (Ngwuta), though a public officer, is also a judicial officer, and subject first to the discipline and management of the National Judicial Council.
“This is in line with Section 158(1) of the1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
“Paragraph 21(b) of Part I of the 3rd Schedule of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Nganjiwa v. Federal Republic of Nigeria (supra) which forms a precedent binding on this tribunal.
“Our hands are, therefore, tied in the light of the aforesaid decision.
“Based on the above, the application of the defendant/applicant is found merited and hereby discharged accordingly.”
The AGF office had on February 8, 2017, filed 10 counts before the CCT against Justice Ngwuta.
Part of the charges was that the Justice of the apex court engaged in private business as a public officer, by dealing in the sale of rice, palm oil and other related products, contrary to Section 6(b) of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act.
The Justice of the Supreme Court was also accused of failing to declare his assets as a public officer contrary to Section 15 of the Code of Conduct Bureau Act, Cap C15 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004.
The state said the judge was liable to punishment under Section 23(2) of the same Act.
He was also alleged to have “between June 2, 2011, and July 19, 2016, while serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, made “a false declaration of assets” to the Code of Conduct Bureau when he failed to declare three duplexes at Chinedu Ogah Avenue, Ntezi, Aba in Abakaliki.
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