Abuja, NIGERIA – A Nigerian politician convicted of forgery and other crimes, Chuma Nzeribe, has been freed from prison barely two months after he began a seven-year jail term, according to PREMIUM TIMES report.
Nzeribe reportedly went into hiding for over a year after being convicted by the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court until he was arrested and sentenced in March this year.
But barely two months after he began the seven years of jail time, the Chief Judge of FCT High Court, Justice Husseini Baba-Yusuf, controversially freed him from the Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja.
The Chief Judge, it was learnt, took the administrative decision anchored on the health conditions of the convict during his official tour of the prison facility for a decongestion exercise in May.
Justice Baba-Yusuf’s decision pre-empted the ruling of another judge of the court, Justice Halilu Yusuf, on the bail application which Nzeribe filed but had yet to be heard.
Some lawyers have argued that the Chief Judge’s action overstepped the limits of his administrative powers and breached the law stipulating the conditions for freeing prisoners, more so that the convict’s bail application was still pending in court for judicial determination.
The convict had been out of jail before the agency that prosecuted him – the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) – got to know of it.
Nzeribe, a former member of the House of Representatives, was convicted in absentia by Justice Halilu Yusuf of the Federal Capital Territory High Court at Maitama, Abuja, in May 2022.
He was found guilty of impersonation, possessing federal government documents, and using the documents to acquire land in the Maitama district of Abuja fraudulently.
But Nzeribe could not be sentenced immediately after the judge pronounced him guilty due to his absence from court.
The EFCC could only apprehend and take him to court for sentencing on 24 March, nearly a year after his conviction.
At the sentencing proceedings, the judge, Justice Yusuf, jailed the former lawmaker for seven years.
But within a short while after his sentencing, Nzeribe filed an appeal against the court’s decision and applied for post-conviction bail.
Parties were still anticipating a date to be fixed for the hearing when the EFCC team got the hint that the convict had been released from prison.
PREMIUM TIMES further reported that the FCT command of the Nigerian Correction Service, which supervises the Kuje facility where he was held, confirmed the Nzeribe’s release on Wednesday.
“The (Chief Judge’s) pronouncement (releasing Nzeribe) was made on 23 May 2023,” Adamu Duza, the spokesperson for the FCT Command of the Nigerian Correctional Service was quoted saying on Thursday by the new media
Duza said Nzeribe “was sentenced two months before the visit of the Chief Judge.”
According to the report the Chief Judge released the convict on health grounds, a controversial decision senior lawyers have called to question.
“The Chief Judge ordered his (Nzeribe’s) release based on medical grounds. There is medical proof to that,” PREMIUM TIMES quoted Duza.
He added that “the Chief Judge used his discretion to pardon Nzeribe. Moreover, he is 64 years old.”
However, PREMIUM TIMES said it later found out that Nzeribe was released without the trial court’s knowledge.
The trial judge, Justice Yusuf, who sits in a courtroom at the Maitama Court complex, which also houses the office of the Chief Judge, is currently out of the station.
A court official said he was serving on an election petition tribunal outside Abuja.
The source, who asked not to be named, disclosed that the trial judge was unaware of Nzeribe’s release.
“The judge (Justice Yusuf) has been under immense pressure to grant the convict bail through the backdoor, but he declined.
“In fact, there is a pending post-conviction motion for bail filed by Nzeribe. But it has not been heard,” the source said.
Another source familiar with the case said the trial court had no jurisdiction to hear Nzeribe’s bail request.
“It (the court) doesn’t have jurisdiction to entertain any application from the Nzeribe since …an appeal has been filed before the Court of Appeal,” the source said.
However, a constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, said, “Chief Judges have no power to pardon convicts,” a legal point another senior lawyer, Sebastine Hon, had argued years ago.
Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), referenced the Criminal Justice (Release From Custody) (Special Provisions) Act.
The law, however, stipulates conditions upon which the Chief Justice or Chief Judge may release a prison detainee.
It says, “…a person whose detention is manifestly unlawful; or a person who has been detained in custody, whether on remand or otherwise, for a period longer than the maximum period of imprisonment which the person detained could have served had he been convicted of the offence in respect of which he was detained.”
Agreeing with Falana, another lawyer, Adebayo Akinlade, said there were criteria to be met by prison detainees before the Chief Judge can release them.
Akinlade explained that the law empowers the Chief Judge under the prerogative of mercy to order a prisoner’s release if such a person has been incarcerated for a while.
In addition, Chukwuemeka Clement, the 2nd Vice President Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), said the Chief Judge could pardon a prison detainee on condition of “old age, illegal detention, long period of incarceration and ill-health.”
The news media recalled that in 2013, Nzeribe, a former governorship aspirant was alleged to be in possession of a document containing false pretence with reference number MFCT/LA/FCT 1302, dated June 18, 2003, bearing the name of Ramatu Alhassan.
He was, thus, accused of committing an offence contrary to Section 6, 8(b) of the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Act, 2006 and punishable under Section 1 (3) of the same Act.
The erstwhile lawmaker was accused of using the forged document as a genuine one, thereby committing an offence contrary to Section 366 of the Penal Code Act Cap 532 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (Abuja) and punishable under Section 364 of the same Act.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges at the beginning of the case.
In aid of its case, the EFCC called five witnesses while the defendant testified for himself.
Delivering judgement on the suit, the judge said the prosecution discharged the onus of proof against Nzeribe beyond any reasonable doubt.
Justice Yusuf held that the convict indeed made false pretence and is guilty of forgery. He said Nzeribe also cheated by impersonation.
The judge ruled that the land in Maitama, acquired with the forged papers, should be taken over by the owner, Ishaya Madi, immediately.
The judge said Nzeribe had failed to attend three consecutive court sessions.
Instead, the politician sent a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to the EFCC, surrendering the land to the real owner, Madi.
Thereafter, the judge deferred sentencing until Nzeribe was arrested and brought before the court on 24 March this year.
Nzeribe’s release, again, calls attention to how Nigeria’s criminal justice system can be easily manipulated to the advantage of politically exposed persons (PEPs).
Sometimes PEPs pull their weight to derail investigations or keep their trial delayed for years in court.
On rare occasions when they are convicted, they can get out of prison, deploying unusual legal tactics.
Nzeribe’s release fits into the broader picture of a criminal justice system that allows both the judiciary and the executive arms of government to give high-profile suspects or criminal convicts some special treatment.
The administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari, in 2022, pardoned Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame, former governors of Plateau and Taraba states, respectively, while they were still serving jail time imposed on them for looting public funds. Their convictions and imprisonments had been convicted when the Buhari administration granted them a pardon to have them released from prison.
Erstwhile governor of Abia State, Orji Kalu, wangled his way out of prison after he was convicted of N7.1 billion fraud.
Kalu, a serving senator representing Abia North, was already serving a 12-year jail term for the offences when the Supreme Court, on 8 May 2020, quashed the proceedings leading to his and his co-defendants’ conviction.
The Supreme Court’s judgement delivered on an appeal by Kalu’s co-defendant, Ude Udeogu, had ordered a retrial at the Federal High Court.
Orji Kalu got out of prison based on the Supreme Court’s judgement but quickly applied to the Federal High Court in Abuja to stop his retrial.
In 2021, the judge, Inyang Ekwo, before whom Kalu filed the request, barred Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, EFCC, from retrying the lawmaker.
DISCLAIMER: This report was originally published by PREMIUM TIMES with the titled: Chief Judge frees convicted politician two months after beginning of seven-year jail time