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N4.7 billion fraud: Court ‘excuses’ Babalakin from the dock

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imagesAn Ikeja High Court, Lagos, on Monday granted Wale Babalakin, the Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, a leave to stay away from the dock pending the determination of charges against him.
Justice Lateef Lawal-Akapo ruled that Mr. Babalakin’s physical appearance is not needed in the court until the court hears the suit he filed to quash the charges against him.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, is accusing Mr. Babalakin and Alex Okoh of laundering N4.7 billion on behalf of James Ibori, the convicted former governor of Delta State.
Wale Akoni, counsel to Mr. Babalakin, had brought an application seeking to suspend the physical appearance of his client until the court is ready to arraign him.
“Pending the determination of the application, arraignment cannot commence and his (Mr. Babalakin) presence is not required,” Mr. Akoni, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said.
Rotimi Jacobs, the EFCC counsel, countered Mr. Akoni’s argument, adding that even if his client fails to appear in his capacity as the first defendant, he ought to appear for the third and fourth defendants (Bi-Courtney Limited and Stabilini-Visioni Limited respectively) since he was representing them.
“The third and fourth defendant who have not filed an application to be dispensed with should be in the dock,” said Mr. Jacobs, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
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Mr. Babalakin was not present when the case was called up, and for the second time in as many sittings, it appeared Mr. Okoh would be in the dock alone.
However, about one hour into the trial, Mr. Babalakin strolled into the court room, to the disappointment of the prosecution, who had been edging towards securing a bench warrant, from the judge, for his arrest.
At the last sitting on November 27, Mr. Babalakin was absent in court, forcing the judge to adjourn. ”We were here on 27th November and the first defendant made a passionate appeal to your Lordship because of the heavy traffic and could not be in court,” Mr. Jacobs said.
“The first defendant is on bail granted him on the 17th January 2013. It is the same bail he is enjoying till today. I’m surprised he did not come to court again,” he added.
The defendants had been arraigned before Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo, last January, before the judge was transferred out of the Criminal Division of the court.
The trial was then transferred to Mr. Lawal-Akapo and the defendants billed for a fresh re-arraignment.
“There is no authority on this earth that permits the defendant to abscond on the ground that a case has been transferred to another judge,” Mr. Jacobs continued.
“For his failure to appear, I apply that the bail be revoked because he has failed to abide by the bail conditions. It is an act of disrespect to the court,” Mr. Jacobs added.
But Mr. Akoni argued that his client’s absence on the last adjourned date was not deliberate, calling it “an act of misunderstanding.”
“The bail granted to the 1st defendant is for him to be present at his trial. With all due respect, that trial has not commenced,” Mr. Akoni added.
While the argument and counter-argument over the purported repeated absence of the first defendant continued, Mr. Babalakin walked into the court room, bowed before the judge, and took his seat.
The proceedings began afresh, with the court registrar announcing the case again.
Also, the judge said he would be taking fresh notes since he had earlier recorded that the first defendant was absent.
In addition to ruling that Mr. Babalakin would not be docked pending the determination of his applications, the judge also held that he would not be in the dock to represent his companies since the trial is a joint one.
“The application (for the first defendant to stand for the third and fourth defendants) is refused. The court shall consolidate the various applications and they shall be taken together,” the judge said.
The judge also ruled that Mr. Okoh, who had been sitting in the dock, be “excused” from entering the dock pending the determination of his own suit attacking the charges against him.
The judge also ordered the EFCC to release Mr. Okoh’s passport for him to travel abroad for business meetings. The passport must be returned by January 30, 2014.
The court adjourned till January 20th for argument of all the applications filed by the defendants.

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