The trial of two journalists with Leadership Newspapers kicked off before a federal high court sitting in Abuja on Tuesday. They pleaded not guilty to the amended six counts charge slammed against them by the federal government for allegedly forging a presidential directive and publishing same purporting the forged document as true.
Before their pleas were taken, the lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, a senior advocate of Nigeria, mounted an intensive campaign to stall the accused persons plea to be taken by the court.
Mr. Falana insisted that the written statements of the prosecution witnesses which the prosecution intends to rely upon in the course of the trial should be served on his clients to enable them prepare adequately for their trial in line with the provisions of section 36 of the constitution which guarantees his clients’ right to fair hearing.
He categorically demanded that the statement of President Goodluck Jonathan where he stated that his signature contained in the bromide upon which the publication he is complaining about was made, should be given to his clients to help them build their defence so as not to be ambushed in the course of the trial.
“Everything must be laid on the table so we are not ambushed. Even President Jonathan whose signature is allegedly forged in the “Presidential directive” document would have to come and testify that his signature had been forged. Every material in this case have to be given to us to enable us prepare our defence”
On his part, the prosecution led by Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, also a senior advocate of Nigeria, opposed the submissions of Mr. Falana and contended that the accused persons are only entitled to know the nature of the charge brought against them and not the evidence against them. He argued that proof of evidence which the court ordered to be served on the accused persons does not include the written statements of the prosecution witnesses, which he said is the prosecution’s material for trial.
“Proof of evidence is not the same as the written statement of prospective witnesses of the prosecution, there is a procedure for requesting for such materials as it is not a right. This court has the power to order the accused to take their plea”.
The presiding judge, Justice Adeniyi Ademola, relying on the position of the Supreme Court in Wagbara and Uwazuruike cases as cited by Chief Awomolo, held that the accused have the right to know the nature of the charges brought against them in a summary trial but not the nature of the evidence. He thereafter ordered the journalists to take their plea.
Soon after their pleas were taken, Mr. Falana challenged the competence of the charge. He noted that the court lacks the jurisdiction to conduct the trial as the charge is not competent. He contended that the six counts charge bordered on forgery which is a state offence and had nothing to do with the revenue of the federation.
He argued that the federal high court is not the appropriate venue for the trial.
The court granted bail in the sum of N500, 000 to the journalists with one surety each in like sum. The sureties are to be property owners in Abuja who are to depose to an affidavit of means.
Further proceeding was subsequently adjourned to 16th May for Falana’s application challenging the jurisdiction of the court and the competence of the charge to be heard.