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Court frees bank’s ex-chief Atuche, others in alleged N25.7b fraud

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court.jpg-citynewsJustice Lateef Lawal-Akapo of a Lagos High Court sitting in Ikeja has dismissed the N25.7billion criminal charge preferred against former Managing Director of the defunct Bank PHB, Francis Atuche, and others by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Atuche was set free alongside his wife, Elizabeth, and a former Chief Financial Officer of the bank, Ugo Anyanwu. The three persons were prosecuted by the EFCC for allegedly stealing N25.7 billion from the bank.

Giving his verdict in the case yesterday, Justice Lawal-Akapo held that the court was duty bound to comply with the decisions of Court of Appeal in the cases of former Managing Director of Finbank Plc, Okey Nwosu and former Managing Director of the defunct Intercontinental Bank Plc, Erastus Akingbola.

The judge stated that though the prosecution, in its submission, was right to say that counts one to 10 of the charges were anchored on stealing which falls within the purview of the jurisdiction of the State High Court, he noted that the prosecution did not make any submission on whether counts 11 to 27 have any nexus with shares and stocks.

“The case, in all, falls with Nwosu’s case. Counts one to 10 are within the ambit of the Criminal Laws of Lagos State because they deal with stealing. Counsel to the commission did not make any submission on whether counts 11 to 27 have any nexus with shares and stocks. The criminal charge is hereby struck out and the accused persons are hereby discharged, “the judge ruled.

It would be recalled that the EFCC had asked the court to adjourn indefinitely its ruling on an application filed by Atuche, seeking to quash the theft charges preferred against him. In the application dated April 2, 2015 and filed by its counsel, Dele Adesina (SAN), the commission urged the court to adjourn the ruling, pending the outcome of its appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment of November 21, 2013 at the Supreme Court. The appellate court had in the judgment struck out the theft charges preferred against Nwosu and others for lack of jurisdiction.

Justice Lawal-Akapo dismissed EFCC’s application in the Atuche’s case, claiming that he aligned with the decision of the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division on Elizabeth Atuche’s case, saying “the court must opt for accelerated hearing.” The judge said if he should adjourn the matter sine-dine, his decision will be antagonistic to the ruling of the Court of Appeal.

“The emphasis in this case should not be based on speculation but should be based on accelerated hearing in compliance with the ruling of the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division on Elizabeth Atuche’s appeal. Supposed this court rules sine-dine, the decision will be antagonistic to the decision of the Court of Appeal. I find no merit in this application and the application is hereby dismissed,” the judge ruled.

Atuche, in an application, had asked the court to quash the charge against him, arguing that like Nwosu’s case, the State High Court has no jurisdiction to entertain the matter.

Counsel to the defendants, Sylvia Ogwemoh (SAN) and Tayo Oyetibo, had, in the pending application, asked the court to quash the charge citing the Court of Appeal judgment of November 21, 2013. They had maintained that the cases were similar because they emanated from capital market transactions.

They argued that the charges against Atuche bordered on issues which derived from capital market transactions, on which, they said, only a Federal High Court could adjudicate.

The counsel drew the attention of the court to the decision of the Court of Appeal, which, on November 21, 2014, struck out the theft charges levelled against Nwosu and others. “The appellate court held that such capital market-based matter was an exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal High Court.”

They also referred the court to the December 31, 2014 judgment of the Court of Appeal, Lagos, in the case of Akingbola against the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The appellate court struck out the case against Akingbola on the same grounds.

Justice Lawal-Akapo had on March 2 fixed a date for ruling on Atuche’s application but could not deliver the ruling after Adesina informed the court of the EFCC’s pending application. Adesina said the EFCC had filed an appeal at the Supreme Court against the judgment of the Court of Appeal, adding that the matter was being granted expeditious hearing due to its importance.

But Justice Lawal-Akapo noted that the judicial practice directive is to give priority to high-profile matters. He said nobody could predict the time the Supreme Court would arrive at its verdict in the said appeal. He noted that the lower court had waited for over two years for the apex court to clarify the ruling given by the Court of Appeal on the Nwosu’s case.

Atuche’s lawyer therefore asked the court to reject the application, arguing that it was aimed at truncating the ruling.


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