Dark clouds gathere over sustained delay in trial of suspects in the August 6, 2017 Ozubulu church massacre during which 13 people died and 24 wounded.
Justice Fidelis Aniukwu, the presiding judge in the infamous Ozubulu Church massacre was among the judges chosen from the 16 nominees selected by the National Judicial Council, NJC, in February 2015. He was subsequently sworn-in on March 18, 2015, by Willie Obiano, Governor of Anambra State. Before his appointment he was a young private practitioner.
In the state, Aniukwu is seen as the proverbial old head on young shoulders based on the considerable experience he acquired over 12 years since he was called to bar in 2005. Aniukwu has a very big task in the case before him. The case seems to be giving him a lot of headache because of the slow pace or delay tactics adopted by the prosecution counsel, Jay Jay Ezeuko, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.
Many people who spoke to Verbatim believe that “the old head on young shoulders is also on trial. Four suspects are facing trial in the August 6, 2017 Ozubulu church massacre during which 13 people died and 24 wounded. They are Great Chinedu Akpunonu, Vincent Ike, Chukwudi Ugwu and Onyebuchi Mbanefo. At the centre of the case is Aloysius Ikegwuonu also known as Bishop.
The case which started at Nnewi High Court 3 in February 2018 was later transferred to Awka high Court at the request of Ezeuko. So far, 15 out of 36 witnesses listed have testified with 12 re-echoing what others said.
Despite the effort of Ezeuko in prosecuting the suspects, many observers believe that he “is rather persecuting the suspects” by the slow way and manner he has approached the case.
The climax of the lackluster approach by the prosecution counsel came to the fore on June 6, 2018 when Justice Aniukwu could no longer hold his peace. During the resumed sitting Aniukwu lambasted the prosecution counsel over his uninspiring attitude to the case, saying ‘the matter is becoming irritating’.
On that day, the prosecution counsel brought only two witnesses who merely repeated what the 10 other witnesses volunteered previously. The poor presentation of witnesses by the counsel infuriated the judge and he threatened to reconsider the bail application denied the accused persons some
weeks ago. “This case is becoming irritating; the prosecution is slowing down the matter. As at 10.45 am, the prosecution could not bring more witnesses contrary to the instruction I gave during the last adjourned date that the prosecution should increase speed and bring as many witnesses as possible.
“The prosecution just smuggle witnesses and the Judge’s time is being wasted. Why not tell those who employed you that you are not willing to continue the case, and save us from wasting our time in court”, Justice Aniukwu stated.
Justice Aniukwu emphatically told Ezeuko that the court was no longer comfortable with the appearance of one or two witnesses at every sitting when there was ample time for the prosecution counsel to bring in more witnesses to expedite the trial.
But in an interview with Verbatim shortly after the sitting, Ezeuko said efforts were been made to bring in more witnesses on each sitting. He pleaded with the judge to understand that he had no personal interest in the matter other than being a prosecutor who relied more on materials made available to him.
Also speaking to Verbatim, Festus Keyamo, SAN and defense counsel said he had confidence in his ability to prevail in the case while hoping that the prosecution counsel would respond to the court order that more than two witnesses be presented on each sitting.
However, on July 6, 2018, the court could not sit because the prosecution counsel complained that there were no witnesses to present. The case was later adjourned to July 27.
On the said date, when all had gathered at the Awka High Court to continue the case, the prosecution was nowhere to be found. Aniukwu later told the crowd that the prosecution wrote a letter requesting him to adjourn to another date to enable him attend to a family member that was sick.
Since the beginning of the trial, it has been one excuse or the other to adjourn the case, to the consternation of the presiding Judge.
On January 29, the case could not go on because the prosecution counsel neither brought witnesses nor did he inform prison officials to present the suspects.
On March 17, the court could not sit. The Prosecuting Counsel presented two letters of application addressed to the Chief Judge of the State requesting for security and protection of witnesses in the matter, and for a change of venue of the court to Awka, the state capital as a way to address threat to lives of the witnesses, as well as attacks on their properties. Many saw the move as a legal gimmick to delay the matter. That was the second time the case was being delayed.
V.O.S.Okeke, counsel for one of the defendant asked the presiding judge to either foreclose the matter or grant the suspect’s bail application. “We are saying that Chinedu Akpunonu cannot jump bail. He honoured police invitation all the way from South Africa. The chances of jumping bail are not there”. Other defense counsels agreed with him that the suspects be granted bail. The case was adjourned to September 26, October 12 and October 26 for accelerated hearing.
It will be recalled that on May 6, the Judge denied the suspects bail saying that granting the suspects bail could be risky, especially when the suspects could not prove overwhelming circumstances to warrant their bail.
Justice Aniukwu said it has never been easy to grant bail to someone accused of murder or involved in a capital offence especially when “the tempo of trial is encouraging”, therefore granting bail might jeopardize the case.
The suspects, Akpunonu, Ugwu, Ike and Mbanefo had in their separate applications for bail stated that they were innocent in the matter and stressed that even before the law they remained innocent and were entitled to bail. They also stated that they had health conditions that Nnewi Medium Prison health facilities could not handle.
The judge agreed that ill health was enough argument to grant suspects bail in criminal matters, “but they may choose to keep faith in their plea of innocence or jump bail”. In the case of Akpunonu, the judge stated that the court could not rely on a referral by a doctor who last saw the accused in November 2015.
He asked the prison authorities to ensure that the suspects were given proper medical attention. Now that it is obvious that the prosecution counsel seems to have exhausted his ‘arsenal’ will justice Aniukwu grant the suspects bail in next adjourned date? That is the question.
By Victor Ugborgu