The Federal High Court, Abuja, on Tuesday, dismissed the application by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to screen its fourth prosecution witness (PW4) in the ongoing trial of Abdulrasheed Maina, ex-Pension Reform boss.
Justice Okon Abang gave the order after listening to arguments of counsel to the parties in the case.
It was reported that the act of screening a witness in a case is to afford the witness the opportunity to testify under shield to protect him or her from public view.
At the resumed trial on Tuesday, the anti-graft agency’s lawyer, Farouk Abdullahi, urged the court, shortly after the third witness completed its evidence in chief, to grant his request for the PW4 to testify in camera.
“I apply that my next witness be screened in accordance with Section 232 Dub 4c of ACJA.
“The application will not prejudice the trial of this case. I am not making the application to waste the judicial time of this honourable court,” he said.
Reacting, Counsel to Maina, Mohammed Monguno, objected to the application.
Monguno, who described the case as just a criminal trial, said the prosecution had breeched Section 232 Subsection 2 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA).
He argued that the identity of the proposed witness was no longer hidden as the witness’ name, address and phone number are in the proof of evidence which had already been circulated to the clients, the counsel, the registry, etc.
“More so, no reason was given for the application for the screening of the witness,” he remarked.
The lawyer further argued that the EFCC counsel did not inform them of his plan to have the witness screened.
Adeola Adedipe, Counsel to the 2nd defendant (Common Input Property Investment Ltd), supported Monguno’s submission..
“I adopt the submission of the counsel to the 1st defendant. We are here to give full cooperation to the court.
“The prosecution has failed to comply with the mandatory provision of Section 232 Sub 2 of the ACJA. It is an application predicated on nothing,” he added.
Justice Abang while addressing Abdullahi, said: “You have already disclosed the particulars of the proposed witness. So how do you want the court to screen the witness.”
Responding, Abdullahi, who admitted that the identity of the witness had already been made known, said their application was for the witness to be screened from gallery and not from the bar.
“Yes My Lord, it is correct that we have listed the name of the proposed witness in our list of witnesses.
“The penal legislation has not said that when a proposed witness is named, the witness cannot be screened.
“Our application is that the witness should be screened from gallery and not from the bar.
“The court is a court of justice and it has the power to do that. We want the witness to be heard and not to be seen. I therefore urge this honourable court to grant our application,” he said.
Abdullahi also regretted that the defence counsel were not informed about the decision to screen the proposed witness.
“I should have discussed this with the counsel to the defendant although it is not mandatory for the prosecution.
“It was not done in bad faith. Particularly, the defendant has nothing to lose. So I urge this honourable court to grant the application,” he said.
In his ruling, Justice Abang said he had carefully considered the argument of the defence counsel, arguing that the prosecution had already breeched Section 232 Sub 2 of ACJA..
He said he had also considered the argument of the prosecution in his reply on point of law.
However, the judge said that “the provisions of Section 232 Subsections 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of ACJA guides the court on how to exercise its discretion as to whether or not a particular witness ought to be screened.”
He said for a witness to be screened, the prosecution must comply with the mandatory provision of Section 232 Subsection 2 of ACJA.
The judge said for a witness to be screened, the identity ought not to have been disclosed in the court record.
He said Abdullahi also admitted that the statement made by the witness also formed parts of the record of the court.
He said the prosecution also failed to tell the court that the proposed witness had been designated with combinations of alphabets.
Justice Abang, therefore, held that having disclosed the identity of the witness, the proposed witness cannot be screened.
He said the prosecution had breached the relevant sections of the law.
According to him, the defence has a point here and the issue must be resolve in favour of the defence.
“This is an issue of law, not sentiment. The proposed fourth witness shall not be screened whether partially or otherwise,” the judge held.
Justice Abang then adjourned the trial continuation until Jan. 15.