Justice I.O. Ijelu of the Lagos State High Court sitting in Ikeja, Lagos, on Friday, issued a bench warrant for the arrest of a businessman, Chief Cletus Ibeto, for failing to appear in court for his arraignment over an alleged N4.8bn fraud.
The judge had, on October 5, 2023, adjourned till November 3, 2023, the arraignment of Ibeto alongside Ibeto Energy Development Company and Odoh Holdings on 10-count charges bordering on obtaining by false pretences, fraudulent conversion of property, criminal breach of trust, forgery and deception, following an application and appeal by his lawyer, Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN.
Ikpeazu, while seeking an adjournment, had told the court that “the law is not a respecter of any person. I am of the firm view that this is a matter that can be resolved; and if given some time, it can be resolved.”
An statement from by the Head, Media and Publicity of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Dele Oyewale, indicated that the defence counsel told the court that he (counsel) had not medical report with him in court to explain the absence of the defendant, adding that the issue at stake was one that could be resolved between the complainant and the defendants.
Responding, the prosecution counsel, Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, said though plea bargain was encouraged even in criminal matters, “the EFCC gave them the opportunity to go and resolve their differences, but they did not seize the opportunity, even before the charges were filed.
“There should be an arraignment first before the court will assume jurisdiction to do anything,” he said.
After listening to both parties, Justice Ijelu, at the last sitting, expressed concerns that the defence counsel seemed to be trying to deceive the court.
The judge held that the defendant could not be shielded from coming to court and adjourned till Friday for arraignment of the defendants.
However, at Friday’s proceedings, Ibeto was, again, absent in court.
Jacob, who informed the court that the matter was for arraignment, recalled that the defendants had been absent at previous sittings on September 28, and October 5, 2023.
“Your lordship will recall that on the 28th of September 2023, this matter came up for arraignment and my friend, Okoko, SAN appeared for the defendants and pleaded with my lord for adjournment till 5th of October 2023 to enable him produce the defendant.
“Your lordship graciously granted the request. On the 5th of October , my learned brother silk, Ikpeazu, SAN, came and represented the defendants and also pleaded with your lordship for adjournment on the grounds that he wanted to talk to the prosecution to do plea bargain, and your lordship insisted that the defendant, whatever step to be taken, must be present in court. Today, the learned senior advocate did not appear. They now brought another counsel to, again, say that he is not in court,” he said.
Counsel for the defendants, D.A. Awosika, SAN, who apologised for the absence of his client, said that the defendant had an underlying ailment.
⁰He said, “I am not here to grandstand and I am not here to disrespect the court. The defendants will always come before the court to take their pleas. However, the position of the law is that when you have criminal proceedings, it is bifurcated into two: there are proceedings before plea is taken; and there proceedings after plea is taken.”
After listening to all the arguments, Justice Ijelu, in his ruling held that the defendant must take his plea before any application could be taken.
“The notice of preliminary objection filed in this case as referred by the defence counsel is challenging the jurisdiction of the court. The law is that jurisdictional issues can be raised at any time in the proceedings.
However, the court is of the view that the question of jurisdiction should not be employed to delay the dispensation of justice. From the record of this court, it appears evident that an attempt is being made to shield the defendant from arraignment in this case under so many disguises. In the circumstance, the court holds that defendants have to take their pleas and thereafter bring their objection, which the court should consider along with the substantive issues and a ruling made,” he said.
Justice Ijelu held that “The application for bench warrant succeeds, and this case is further adjourned till November 15, 2023 for arraignment.”