The Federal Government on Sunday debunked the claim by Mr. Charles Adeogun-Phillips that he voluntarily withdrew in protest as the lead prosecuting counsel in the trial of a Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, on corruption charges.
The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami (SAN), said in a statement on Sunday that he fired Adeogun-Phillips from further handling the case because of the lawyer’s “unprofessional conduct”.
Adeogun-Phillips, a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, appeared before Justice John Tsoho of a Federal High Court in Abuja on Thursday, announcing his withdrawal as the lead prosecuting counsel in Ngwuta’s trial on money laundering charges involving over N500m.
But sources familiar with his running battle with the National Prosecution Coordination Committee headed by the AGF later disclosed to The PUNCH on Thursday that the lawyer decided to step down from the case in protest against the AGF’s withdrawal of N2.2bn fraud charges against three officials of the Supreme Court.
The prosecution of the Supreme Court officials was also being led by Adeogun-Phillips, but the lawyer was absent from the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory in Jabi when another prosecutor from the AGF office, Mrs. Hajara Yusuf, withdrew the charges on Tuesday.
Reacting to the Thursday development, the AGF said in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Salihu Isah, on Sunday, that the claim by Adeogun-Phillips that he stepped down voluntarily was false.
The statement added that the withdrawal of the charges against the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr. Ahmed Saleh, and two other officials of the apex court, was part of the three erstwhile defendants’ plea bargain arrangement with the Federal Government.
The statement read in part, “Contrary to (the) impression given by Charles Adeogun-Phillips, the lead prosecutor in the suit against Supreme Court judge, Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta, in various reports suggesting that he withdrew from the case on his own volition, the National Prosecution Coordination Committee that engaged his services actually withdrew the fiat issued to him to prosecute the case — over non-disclosure of conflict of interests and for other sundry reasons.
“The reports in a section of the media last Friday that he left in protest due to last week Tuesday’s dropping of charges earlier instituted against the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Ahmed Gambo Saleh, and two other officials of the apex court, Muhammad Abdulrahman Sharif and Rilwanu Lawal, which he is also handling for the Federal Government, cannot be relied upon.
“The insinuation that the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation withdrew the case against the three Supreme Court officials because they are northerners is also unwarranted due to the fact that the dropping of the suit was done in good faith and in the context of plea bargaining to achieve greater goals in the prosecution of the other bigger cases that are ongoing against Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, among others.
“So, it is wicked and childish for anyone to allude to undue colouration to an action taken in national interest and reduce it to a North/South thing with a view to confuse the discerning public.
“This is not the first time such process will be entered into in law, especially so as the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 allows plea bargaining in line with national interest.”
He said a similar situation had happened in the past when the allegations against Sergeant Rogers, who was accused of killing Kudirat Abiola, a wife of the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election, the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, were dropped for him (Rogers) to be used as a prosecution witness against Major Hamza Al-Mustapha (retd.), the then prime suspect.
The statement added that Adeogun-Phillips was fired after it was discovered that the lawyer had failed to disclose to the National Prosecution Coordination Committee headed by the AGF that he was defending another criminal case, putting him in a situation of conflict of interest.
Reacting on Sunday, Adeogun-Phillips denied violating any professional rules during his contractual relationship with the AGF office, insisting that the allegation of conflict of interests was never disclosed to him in the NPCC’s letter withdrawing the case from him.
He added, “My involvement with the government commenced only in October 2016 and has been limited to the cases of judicial officers and I am not aware of any judicial officer that I have represented against the government since then, so where is the conflict?
“Assuming without conceding that the issue of conflict had, in fact, arisen in this case, why then did they wait until February 2017, after I challenged the withdrawal of the charges against the Court Administrators, to raise the issue of conflict in the media?”
He went on to paint a picture of fishy circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the charges against the apex court officials.
He alleged that the withdrawal of the charges was a response to pressure mounted on the prosecution after one of the three accused persons, the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr. Ahmed Saleh, was recommended for the position of the Executive Secretary of the National Judicial Council.
He said his demonstration of his resolve to ensure the case was prosecuted was the reason behind the government’s reaction.