N25.7bn fraud: S/Court refuses Atuche, wife’s bid for case re-trial

Francis Atuche

The Supreme Court on Wednesday made an order against re-assigning the N25.7 billion fraud trial of former Managing Director of Bank PHB Plc (now Keystone Bank), Francis Atuche and his wife, Elizabeth.

In a unanimous ruling, Justice Ejembi Eko held that the September 2016 order of the Court of Appeal, Lagos, directing the Chief Judge of Lagos State to re-assign the case to a new judge remained nullified.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had approached the apex court to challenge the decision of the court of appeal.

Eko said the court of appeal did not give any reason for directing the re-assignment of the case to a new judge, adding that the lower court decision did not serve the interest of justice.

“The order was a contentious one. It requires the lower court, in making the order, to give reasons for the order.

“Transferring the case to a new judge would have required that it starts de novo (afresh),’’ he said.

Eko held that the order of the Court of Appeal was “perverse”.

“Neither Justice Lawal-Akapo nor Justice Okunnu was accused of any wrongdoing by the parties to the case to warrant the transfer of the case to a new judge entirely,’’ Eko said.

The Judge noted that considering that the case had almost reached the level of exchanging final addresses the court of appeal ought to have ordered Justice Okunnu to continue with the case.

Eko went on to direct Justice Lateefa Okunnu of the Lagos State High Court, before whom the prosecution had closed its case with 18 witnesses to continue in the handling of the case.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) recalls that the defendants had also opened their defence by inviting eight witnesses to testify.

The EFCC had in 2011 arraigned the Managing Director of the bank, Atuche, his wife and the erstwhile Financial Officer of the defunct PHB Plc, Ugo Anyanwu, before Justice Okunnu.

The defendants were accused of defrauding the bank of N25.7 billion.

NAN recalls that the case had been stalled since July 2014, when the court of appeal, Lagos, ordered the re-assignment of the case to Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo, instead of Justice Okunnu who was assigned the matter since 2011.

NAN reports that Justice Dattijo Muhammad had led the five-man panel that also included Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Justice John Okoro and Justice Paul Galinje.