According to reports, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria has backed call by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President, Abubakar Mahmoud, saying arrested judges had to proceed on leave of absence, pending when they would be given a clean bill of health.
The Body met in Lagos, yesterday, to endorse every action taken by Mahmoud on the matter.
At the meeting were the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. Also in attendance was Joe-Kyari Gadzama (SAN), who met Mahmoud for the first time, since the latter assumed office as NBA President.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and Chairman, National Judicial Council, Mahmud Mohammed, however, described cries for the arrested judges to stand down as unnecessary and hasty.
In a statement issued, yesterday, through the Senior Special Assistant to the Chief Justice, H. S. Sa’eed, Mohammed said: “On the call by President of the Nigerian Bar, A. B. Mahmoud, to suspend judicial officers whose residences were invaded and who were subsequently arrested and detained by the DSS, we believe the call was unnecessary and hasty, as the said officers are still being investigated by the DSS.
“The Chief Justice of Nigeria also wishes to state in clear terms that the ‘sting’ operations carried out by the DSS on October 7 and 8, was certainly an assault on the independence of the Nigerian judiciary. Nonetheless, the judiciary fully supports the anti-corruption drive of President Buhari.
“The judiciary has never and will never shield any officer who is found to be guilty of corruption. However, the CJN believes that due process and the rule of law must be followed.”
According to a statement by AbdulMurray AbdulRasheed, Director General of Abubakar Mahmoud’s NBA Presidential Campaign, the body reiterated support for the Association in its efforts to fight corruption in the judiciary.
One of the lawyers at the meeting said the consensus was that any of the judges charged to court had to stand down.
The senior advocate said the Body supported the position of the NBA President, adding that it would still be the responsibility of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to suspend the judges whenever they were charged to court. He said it would be improper to have the judges preside over matters while they were facing prosecution.
But the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) condemned statement credited to the NBA President.
The group said the NBA’s call, supported by the Body of Senior Advocates, negates the constitutional rights of the judicial officers to presumption of innocence, and overlooks the true purpose of the attack by the executive on the judges.
According to its national coordinator, Chino Obiagwu, “LEDAP is convinced that the State Security Services acted beyond its powers in searching the premises of the judicial officers and in arresting them, because its enabling statute limits its duties to the detection and prevention of crimes against the internal security of Nigeria.
“It is wrong for the NBA to rely on such illegal and provocative raid and arrest of the judges, and demand that they are suspended pending investigations on the allegations against them. Such suspension of the judges will give cloth of legality to an illegality. The State Security Service has no powers under the National Security Agencies Act or any other law to undertake investigation and prosecution of corruption and economic crimes.
“There is no way the judicial officers who were unduly and unjustifiably molested, embarrassed and intimidated by the SSS are expected to stand down or be suspended because of the illegal raid on them. Rather, LEDAP expects the NBA to be vigorously calling for the arrest and prosecution of the officials of the State Security Services who authorised, or participated in the unlawful attack on the judges.”
LEDAP said the NBA, as the umbrella association of lawyers, including the judicial officers, and the voice of the legal profession, had the legal and moral duties to protect the integrity of judicial officials and the independence of the judiciary.
“To make a u-turn from its initial stand, in which it strongly condemned the search and arrest of the judicial officials, and now call for their suspension or reclusion is an unfortunate compromise on due process and independence of the judiciary.
“Judicial officers, by the nature of their calling, are voiceless. Thus, only the NBA can stand and speak for them. If the NBA turns its back on judicial officials at this time that the executive wants to browbeat and denigrate the judiciary and the legal profession, it portends great danger to the rule of law and democracy in Nigeria,” the group said, adding that the right to presumption of innocence was a cardinal principle in justice delivery, and if the judicial officials were forced to stand down, they would have been accused and adjudged guilty, even by a body that is not authorised by law to do so.