By Yemi Oyeyemi, Abuja
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on Wednesday suffered a setback as the Court of Appeal in Abuja threw away its appeal against the judgment of a Federal High Court which hammered the anti-graft agency with a N50 million fine over its unlawful detention of a businessman, Mr Babatunde Morakinyo.
A 3-member panel of Justices of the court in a unanimous decision held that the abuse of statutory power by the anti-graft agency is “oppressive, repressive and condemnable”.
Justice Inyang Ekwo of a Federal High Court, Abuja had on March 1, 2021 slammed a whopping sum of N50 million on the commission after finding it liable of abuse of power and infringing on the fundermental right of Mr Morakinyo.
The trial court had also ordered the anti-graft agency to tender a public apology to the applicant to be published in two national dailies over the illegal arrest and detention of the businessman.
Dissatisfied, the commission approached the court of appeal praying it to set aside the judgment of the trial court on the grounds of alleged miscarriage of justice.
The EFCC through its counsel, Mr Ekele Iheanacho, also predicated the appeal on the grounds that the businessman was held for further investigation.
However, in their judgments, the three Justices of the Court of Appeal rejected the claims of the commission and held that the detention of Morakinyo after two High Courts in Lagos and Abuja had admitted him to bail was a gross abuse of statutory powers.
The appellate court further held that the claim of re-arresting the respondent after he had perfected his bail in Abuja and Lagos courts was misconceived and not tenable in law.
Justice Muktar, who delivered the lead judgment, said that the judgment of the Federal High Court, Abuja, was unambiguous and was without misdirection or error, adding that the re-arrest of the respondent was willful, unlawful and must be condemned.
The court in addition held that the fundamental rights of Nigerian citizens to freedom of liberty and human dignity as guaranteed under Section 35(6) is unassailable and cannot be called a non issue as done by EFCC in its conduct in the extant case.
However, the panel reduced the N50 million aggravated damages imposed on EFCC by Justice Ekwo to N10 million on the grounds that the fine was excessive.
Morakinyo had in a fundamental rights enforcement suit asked the Federal High Court to order the EFCC to pay him the sum of N50 million as aggravated damages over his unlawful arrest and detention between March 19 and April 4, 2020, at the EFCC’s facility in Jabi, Abuja.
The EFCC had on March 19, 2021 arraigned Morakinyo on a 23-count charge bordering on alleged money laundering.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was admitted to bail in the sum of N200 million with two sureties. One of the sureties, the judge insisted, must own a landed property in Abuja worth the bail bond.
Upon perfecting his bail conditions, the judge endorsed the order for his release.
But in a swift reaction, the commission re-arrest Morakinyo in court and detained him from March 19, 2020, until April 4, 2020, claiming he is to face another trial before a Lagos high court.
The action of the commission prompted the applicant to file an enforcement of fundamental rights suit and demands compensation for his illegal detention.
Justice Inyang in his ruling faulted the actions of the anti-graft agency and awarded N50 million in exemplary damages against the commission “for abusing its statutory powers and arbitrarily trampling on the fundamental rights of the applicant”.
According to Justice Ekwo, “The act is an aberration of the tenets of the democracy we profess to practise”.
The court stated that in a democracy, no arm of government is to be made to appear as subjugated to the other.
“Unconstitutional and illegal courthouse arrest is condemnable and punishable. And the courthouse arrest of the applicant by the respondent is no less so.
“Where the court has granted bail to a person and the person has met the terms of bail, and release warrant has been issued to him, but he is facing arraignment in another court, he needs not be re-arrested.
“He can be served the subsequent charge and given the opportunity to appear in court on the date fixed for his arraignment.
“The assumption that such a person is likely not to appear in court for the other trial is unfounded as his particulars of bail are in the custody of the court already.
“The court, which he is appearing next, has the discretion to grant him bail upon the previous terms or modify same. He is aware that it is in his interest to appear in court to answer to the allegations against him.
“Therefore, there is no valid foundation for the subsequent arrest of the applicant on the excuse of a pending charge in Lagos, when he had been granted bail by a court of coordinate jurisdiction in Abuja upon arraignment for another charge”, Justice Ekwo held.