A Federal High Court (FHC), Abuja, on Friday, convicted and sentenced two of the four defendants who kidnapped Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, on Aug. 23, 2013, to 20 imprisonment each.
Justice Binta Nyako, in a judgment, held that the prosecution had been able to prove the counts preferred against Kelvin Ezeigbe and Frank Azuekor, who were 1st and 2nd defendants, beyond reasonable doubt.
Justice Nyako held that the sentence would run from the day of their arrest.
She held that though some of the counts against Ezeigbe and Azuekor attracted punishment ranging from death sentence, life imprisonment to at least 10 years jail term, she said she had found that the accused had been remorseful of their criminal act.
She said she also found that they had been in custody for about 10 year from the day of their arrest.
“I have considered the plea by 1st and 2nd defendants and I have noted their remorsefulness.
“I will sentence you to 20 years imprisonment each which will run from the date each of you was arrested.
“This is to serve as a deterrent not only to you but for other people to know that this is not the way to survive.
“We need to send the right messages to society that it is not acceptable to do bad behaviour,” shw said.
The judge, who ordered that the duo be transferred from the custody of the Department of State Service (DSS) to Kuje Correctional Centre, however, discharged and acquitted Michael Omonigho and Momoh Haruna, who were 3rd and 4th defendants, of the counts levelled against them in the terrorism charge.
She said the prosecution failed to substantiate allegations of conspiracy and kidnapping against Omonigho and Haruna.
While Omonigho, who was said to be the chief priest of his community was in court, Haruna was not.
When Nyako warned Omonigho to be careful as people worship in his shrine in the open court, the chief priest responded thus: “I have repented my lord.”
The judge, however, directed that Haruna, who was at large, should be brought to court to face the sin of his escape from lawful custody, even though he was discharged of the counts against him.
They judge commended the defence lawyer, Bala Dakum, and the prosecution counsel, Chioma Onuegbu, for their industrious input in the course of the trial.
The defendants; Kelvin Ezeigbe, Frank Azuekor, Michael Omonigho and Momoh Haruna were first arraigned before Justice Adeniyi Ademola of a FHC, on June 9, 2014, on a 13-count charge bordering on conspiracy, armed robbery, kidnapping and acts of terrorism.
The charge was later amended to a 14-count.
While the three defendants were in court for the trial, Haruna was said to be missing after the attack on Kuje Correctional Centre by terrorists on July 5, 2022.
They were accused of committing acts of terrorism, contrary to Sections 1, 8 and 10 of the Terrorism Prevention Act, 2011.
According to the charge, they were alleged to have, on Aug. 23, 2013, kidnapped Mr. Ozekhome at Iruekpen on his way to Iviukwe in Agenebode, Edo.
Ozekhome was held in captivity for about three weeks before his release allegedly following the payment of N28 million ransom.
They were also accused of kidnapping Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof Hope Eghagha; Attanasius Ugbome and his friend, Emmanuel Maka Omorogbe, and killing five policemen and two prison officials.
The defendants were also alleged to have compelled Eghagha to pay N7 million, Ugbome paid N20 million and Omorogbe paid N3.5 million.
The five police officers allegedly killed were Paul Ajaka, Sunday Ewanshiha, Michael Akpada, Bakary Ekong and Innocent Odoh.
They also allegedly killed Lawrence Edora and Oyibo Okoye who were prison officers and made away with their service rifles.
The four suspects were refused bail filed on their behalf by their lawyer, Bala Dakum.
While Ezeigbe and Azuekor were held at the facility of the DSS, Omonigho and Haruna were held at Kuje Correctional Centre, Abuja.
Delivering the judgment, Justice Nyako noted that the defendants faced 14-count amended charge.
She said the trial judges were changed severally in the course of the matter until it was finally reassigned to her.
The judge, who said that the prosecution called seven witnesses, said Ozekhome testified as 6th prosecution witness (PW6).
Reviewing the prosecution’s evidence, Justice Nyako said Ozekhome’s “testimony was central to the prosecution’s evidence.”
She said the prosecution, led by Onuegbu, a lawyer at the Federal Ministry of Justice in Abuja, also tendered 16 exhibits in aid of its case.
She said Ozekhome told the court that he was kidnapped by Ezeiegbe and Azuekor as well as other members of their gang and that he paid a N40 million ransom to the convicts in dollars before he was released from their dungeon.
The judge said the senior lawyer narrated that he spent three weeks in the kidnappers den.
“Mike Ozekhome is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and swore with the Holy Bible while giving his testimony,” she recalled.
She said Ozekhome was a witness of truth whose testimony could not be ignored, going by the Evidence Act on eye-witness account.
In convicting Ezeiegbe and Azuekor, the judge also relied on a letter from the Delta State Attorney-General to the Attorney-General of the Federation which said Azuekor was indicted for a crime in the state prior to his arrest for kidnapping of Ozekhome.
She held that the convicts’ denial of their confessional statements was immaterial as they did not provide an alibi for the crimes.
She held that based on the evidence of the prosecution witnesses, Ezeiegbe (the 1st defendant) and his gang members aided and abetted Azuekor (the 2nd defendant) by attacking prison officials who were escorting Azuekor to court in Delta for another criminal trial, killing two of the prison officers.
“I find him (Mr Azuekor) guilty of escaping from lawful custody.
“I find that the prosecution has proven its case. This is very believable evidence,” the judge said.
Earlier before handing down the sentencing, the defendants were given the opportunity to plead for mercy.
Ezeigbe begged the court to temper justice with mercy since he had been in prison custody for about 10 years.
The convict, who said he had been suffering from different sicknesses like ulcer, asthma and diabete, said he had about 10-year-old child and a wife.
When the judge asked about his wife, a lady stood up in the open court.
Also, Azuekor pleaded that the court should be lenient its sentencing.
He said he had never been convicted before and had been in custody for about 10 years.
Besides, Azuekor said he had aged parents and that he was also suffering from a serious eye problem.
Their counsel, Mr Dakum, also prayed the court to temper justice with mercy.
“I appeal to my lord to apply the least conviction. They have families and they are the breadwinners,” he pleaded.
The judge, who appreciated Dakum’s industry in the course of the trial, said:: “When we do this kind of case, it is not as if we want to punish people, but for people like Kelvin and Frank who think they were graduates and deserve good life, to learn.”
She said one should not engage in bad behaviour because one thinks that the society has failed him or her.