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12 years after, Supreme Court discharges army sergeant from death penalty imposed by military court

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The Supreme Court has discharged and acquited a Nigerian Army Sergeant, Akawu Bala, from a death sentence passed on him by the General Court Martial of the Nigerian Army.

The respite came the way of the embattled Army Sergeant after spending 12 years in Kaduna prison waiting for ratification of the death sentence passed on him.

Delivering judgment in an appeal he lodged at the Supreme Court on March 16, 2017, a 5-man panel of Justices of the Supreme Court unanimously discharged him from the death penalty.

Sergeant Bala was accused by the Nigerian Army of shooting and killing one Isa Mohammed on December 9, 2012 when he was attached to African Petroleum Station at Sabon Tasha, Kaduna.

The victim of the gunshot was said to have died on December 10, 2012 at Saint Gerald’s Catholic Hospital in Kaduna.

Following his indictment, he was put on trial on murder charge punishable under section 106 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 before the General Court Martial on 2-count charge. He was found guilty of murder and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

However, on February 17, 2017, his appeal against the death penalty was upheld by the Court of Appeal, Kaduna division on the ground that the charge sheet upon which he was tried and convicted was not signed by a General Commanding Officer as required by law.

Justice Obietonbara Daniel Kalo who read the Court of Appeal’s lead judgment declared the process of the trial and conviction of the Sergeant as a nullity, but however refused to discharge him from the nullified trial, promoting further appeal to Supreme Court.

His lead counsel, Mr Reuben Okpanachi Atabo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria SAN had argued on behalf of the convict that having declared the trial of his client, a nullity, the Court of Appeal ought to have made a consequential order to discharge the accused person from the flawed trial.

The senior lawyer drew the attention of the apex court to section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 which prohibited retrial of any military personnel after his trial has been voided and set aside.

The Nigerian Army, through its lead counsel, Isaac Udoka, vehemently objected to the arguments of the defence appellant and prayed that the apex court should order the retrial of the convict in the interest of justice.

In the Supreme Court judgment, Justice Helen Morenikeji Ogunwumiju however agreed with Atabo SAN that the Court of Appeal ought to have discharged the accused person having voided his trial and declared it a nullity.

Justice Ogunwumiju subsequently invoked section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 and set the convict free, adding that the ordinary meaning of section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 is that the accused person can no longer stand another trial.

The court while rejecting the arguments of the Army’s lawyer, thereafter ordered immediate release of the convict from Kaduna prison where he had been on remand since 2012.

Apart from Justice Ogunwumiju, other Justices on the panel were Uwani Musa Abba Aji, Chidiebere Nwaoma Uwa, Stephen Jonah Ada, and Abubakar Sadiq Umar.

Sergeant Bala had in his defense claimed that he shot at Isa Mohammed and one other person when they were walking towards him in the dark at the African Petroleum Station and his order on them to go back was rebuffed.

The convict claimed that he fired the gun at the two men because it was during the peak of Boko Haram activity in Kaduna that they were walking towards him in the dark.

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