By Alexander Enumah in Abuja
More facts have come to light as to why a High Court sitting in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, quashed the declaration of the Executive Vice Chairman of Aiteo Group, Benedict Peters, as “wanted” by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The EFCC had in March last year declared Peters wanted in connection with criminal conspiracy, diversion of funds and money laundering.
But in a judgment last Thursday, Justice Oathman Musa held that the anti-graft agency has no power to declare Peters or anyone “wanted” without a court order.
This was in response to suit number FCT/HC/CV/23/2017 filed by Peters, accusing the EFCC of declaring him wanted on its website without following due process.
In his ruling, the judge said: “Peters has never been charged with, nor tried for any criminal offence in any court of law, nor has he ever jumped bail for any offence howsoever in Nigeria and cannot be declared wanted by administrative fiat without any prior order or leave of court.”
The judgment further read: “The very act of declaring the applicant (Benedict Peters) a wanted person on the official website of the first respondent (EFCC) without any prior order or leave of a court of competent jurisdiction to that effect is unlawful, illegal, wrongful, ultra vires, unconstitutional and constitutes a flagrant violation of the fundamental rights of the applicant to personal liberty, private and family life, freedom of movement and the right to not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment as guaranteed under Section 34, 37, 41 and 46 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), and Articles 2, 3(1) & (2), 4, 5, 6, 7, and 12(1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, 2004.”
On August 15, 2016, Peters was declared wanted by the EFCC without an order of a court and in the absence of a valid charge in a court of law.
The declaration was published in Punch newspaper, online publications – Premium Times and Sahara Reporters – and on the official website of the EFCC.
It was also carried by top tier news platforms across the country.
EFCC claimed that Peters was summoned on several occasions before he was declared wanted. However, the evidence presented in court showed that Peters was out of the country on health grounds and this was communicated to EFCC by his legal representatives.
Peters requested for a rescheduling based on the aforementioned reason, however, a day before the date on which he had been required to attend, armed men and police officers at the behest of EFCC, invaded his company premises and made arrests.
EFCC’s defence for its actions was that it acted based on a warrant of arrest issued by a magistrate’s court.
Upon scrutinising the contents of the document constituting the warrant, the judge discovered that the said document was dated August 5, 2016, suggesting that it was made or signed by the issuing magistrate on that date.
Curiously, the EFCC endorsed it as having been received on August 4, 2016 at 10.32 a.m.
This inconsistency completely flawed EFCC’s defence, compelling Justice Musa to declare last Thursday: “I am left with no option but to conclude that the first respondent (EFCC) has presented to this court an absurd and unimaginable case of receiving a signed document a day before it was actually signed by the person who was purported to have signed it.
“I’m afraid such a thing is not possible in our physical world. Perhaps, it is possible in the spirit world. This renders the circumstances surrounding the procurement of this document doubtful.”
Since EFCC’s declaration was not within the ambit of the laws of Nigeria and did not comply with the conditions precedent to the said declaration, the judge dismissed the case, stating: “An order is hereby made directing the first respondent (EFCC) to remove from its website the purported declaration made against the applicant forthwith.”
The latest ruling in favour of the oil magnate follows a series of judicial victories when his earnings were declared as legitimate and several money laundering allegations levelled against him were thrown out of court based on lack of evidence.