The failure of the Nigerian Prisons Service to produce Agba Jalingo, a Nigerian journalist. charged with terrorism and cybercrime on Wednesday stalled the hearing of his case.
Jalingo was billed to appear before Justice Simon Amobeda who presides over Court 2 of the Calabar division of the Federal High Court after 55 days of no activity on his matter.
But, friends, associates, colleagues and well wishers were left disappointed as they kept hearing that the matter was shifted off record until Friday due to his absence.
A lawyer in his defense team, James Ibor explained to journalists that it was due to an administrative issue as his production warrant was not signed.
“The court had earlier notified us that they are ready to hear our application today and we were in court for the court to hear us but unfortunately, being a criminal trial, Agba Jalingo was not produced. So, the Court has made an order that the prisons should produce him on Friday and with that order, I am very optimistic that Agba Jalingo will be produced on Friday for the purpose of taking our application,” Ibor explained.
Justice Amobeda had in December granted the prayers of the defendant for the provision of an electronic verbatim recorder (EVR). He also recused himself.
But, Ibor said that having waited for so long and the provision of the EVR was not forthcoming, the defense had to file a motion to vary the order of Justice Amobeda.
“We have applied to the court to vary its order for verbatim electronic recording. The reason is because the process of procuring those equipment, I think, will take a lot of time. The Court has ordered that the federal government provide the verbatim electronic devices to its court to enable them record proceedings verbatim.
“But, unfortunately, the process of procuring that or installing that may take a long time. I am not speaking for the Federal High Court but I am speculating that it is over a month since the order was made and it has not been provided and it may take quite a long time to do so knowing the way things work in this country.
“So, we don’t want to wait. We are confident that the court will give us justice and that is why we want to make use of the longhand, archaic, backward, handwritten recording for now, pending when the federal government will do the needful,” he said.
Also, a twist in the case showed that the Cross River State government may take over the case by the next court date.
And, when asked to explain whether that was possible and the reason for it, Ibor averred that: “It will be difficult to answer for the Attorney General of the federation taking over the matter or the Attorney General of Cross River State taking over the matter. Constitutionally, it is their duty, it is their right to take over or discontinue any trial or prosecution anywhere in Nigeria. I am not in a better position to answer that.”
Furthermore, he said the notion that the matter may be taken to the High Court of Cross River State should be discountenanced.
He said: “The matter will not be transferred to a State High Court. They are federal offenses and the matter will remain in the Federal High Court and we are very optimistic we will get Justice.”
Jalingo risks a death sentence if convicted and there have been concerns about his right to fair hearing after Justice Amobeda had granted an order to mask the prosecution witnesses and for the to testify in secret with the public barred from witnessing proceedings.
He was arrested in his Lagos residence on August 22, 2019 despite repeated statements that he will honor a police invitation bordering on his article published in July where he demanded the whereabouts of the NGN500 million approved and released by the Cross River State government for the floating of the Cross River Microfinance bank.
He was then ferried to Calabar by road in what colleagues and family describe as a tortuous 25 hour journey where he arrived on the 24th. He will then spend 32 days detained at a Police black site facility where he collapsed twice due to ill health before he was arraigned on initial charges of treason, treasonable felony, terrorism and attempt to topple the Cross River State government on September 25, 2019.
Justice Amobeda then remanded him at the Calabar prisons where he has spent 134 days so far. He was also denied bail twice.
Cross River Governor, Benedict Ayade has been fingered as being behind his ordeal, an allegation the Governor and his aides denied. Mr. Ayade had also accused Jalingo of blackmail in a recent chat with journalists, an allegation he later retracted and apologized claiming he got his facts wrong.
Also, the #OneFreePress coalition listed Jalingo as one of the 10 most urgent cases of threat to press freedom in October 2019, an action which when reported by The Times, was described as “gutter journalism” by the Cross River State Government.