Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja, on Monday, withdrew from the fundamental rights enforcement suit the convener of RevolutionNow protest, Mr Omoyele Sowore, filed to challenge his continued detention by the Department of State Service.
The judge based his decision on an adverse publication he said Sowore’s online media outlet, Sahara Reporters, carried about him. Sowore had in his suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/1409/2019, alleged gross violation of his constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, insisting that he was being illegally detained by the DSS. Consequently, he demanded a court order to compel the Director-General of the DSS, Yusuf Bichi, and the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, SAN, who were cited as Respondents in the matter, to pay an aggregate sum of N500million as general and aggravated damages for breaching his rights to personal liberty, dignity of person, fair hearing, family life, freedom of association and freedom of movement.
Aside from seeking for an order of perpetual injunction to restrain the Respondents from further violating his rights, the Applicant demanded a public apology in five national dailies.
His co-defendant, Olawale Bakare, equally made a similar demand in a separate suit the duo filed through their lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, on December 10. Hearing of the suits suffered a setback on Monday as Justice Mohammed who is currently sitting as a vacation Judge, voluntarily recused himself from the matter.
The Judge maintained that his decision to hands-off Sowore’s suit was the fair, just and proper thing to do in view of publications by Sahara Reporters that he received bribe to compromise the outcome of a criminal case involving a former governor. Justice Mohammed, noted that owing to the allegation which was in respect of the trial of former Governor of Benue State, Senator Gabriel Suswam, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, he withdrew from the case and it was transferred to another judge. The Judge stressed that it was reports Sahara Reporters published in 2016 and 2019, that forced him to hands-off Suswam’s trial. He recalled that when the first report was published in 2016, all the parties in the trial persuaded him to continue with the case.
According to him, after he resumed proceeding in the trial, Sowore’s media outlet published a similar report in June this year, a development that made him to revise himself from the case.
Justice Mohammed therefore argued that it would not be proper for him to go ahead with Sowore’s fundamental rights enforcement suit. He said the past development placed him in a situation whereby if he rules in favour of the Applicant, it could be perceived that he was blackmailed and if he decides the case against him it could be seen that he was being vengeful. The held that since “justice is rooted in confidence”, no room should be left for any of the parties “to have fear or apprehension that he will not get justice before a court.”
Justice Mohammed, therefore, ordered that the case file be sent back to the Chief Judge of the Court, Justice John Tsoho, to be re-assigned to another judge.
Earlier before he took the decision, the Judge sought the opinion of lawyers in the matter in view of the said publication and implication it would have on public perception of his handling of Sowore’s case. Responding, Sowore’s lawyer, Mr Falana, SAN, said he was aware of the publications referred to by the judge, saying it would be a proper decision for him to withdraw from the case.
The senior lawyer cited a 1995 decision of the Supreme Court that disqualified eight Justices from handling a case involving the winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, the late M.K.O Abiola, over his Concord’s previous publications concerning the Justices.
On his part, counsel to the DSS DG, Bichi, Mr G.O.A Agbadua, said he would not take a position on the matter so that his comment would not be misconstrued as an attempt to delay the hearing. Likewise, counsel for the AGF, Mr Abubakar Abdullahi, said he would leave the decision to the discretion of the judge. The Judge relied on Falana’s submission to recuse himself from the case.
It will be recalled that Sowore who was the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress, AAC, in the last general election, was arrested on August 2 for calling for a nationwide protest against perceived maladministration by the President Buhari-led government. He was subsequently arraigned before the Federal High Court in Abuja on September 30 and granted bail on October 4 by trial Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu. However, the DSS declined to release him and his co-defendant who were slammed with a seven-count treasonable felony charge by the Federal Government.
Displeased with conduct of the secret service, the trial Judge, on December 5, gave the agency 24 hours ultimatum to release the defendants from detention, vowing not to take further step in the matter till the order was obeyed. Owing to the ultimatum, the DSS temporarily released the defendants same day, only to invade the court the next day, December 6, to re-arrest Sowore, in a manner that elicited wide condemnation to the agency.
The AGF had since directed the agency to hands-off the trial of the defendants and transfer their case-file to the Federal Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, over a week after the AGF took over the case-file, Sowore still remained in custody of the DSS without a fresh charge against him.
Justice Inyang Ekwo of the high court had on December 17, adjourned to enable both the DSS boss and the AGF to appear before the court to respond to an ex-parte application Sowore filed for an order to compel his unconditional release from detention. Since the court had commenced its annual vacation, the case-file was therefore handed to Justice Mohammed who was retained as the vacation Judge.