By Michael Ojo
The office of the Attorney-General of the Federation on Monday failed to persuade a Federal High Court in Lagos to admit in evidence statements it claimed was voluntarily made by 10 persons accused of hijacking a vessel.
Justice Ayokunle Faji rejected the extra judicial statements on the ground, among others, that there was a likelihood that they were obtained under threat and intimidation.
The defendants in the case are Frank Abaka, Jude Ebaragha, Shina Alolo, Joshua Iwiki, David Akinseye, Ahmed Toyin, Shobajo Saheed, Adekole Philip, Matthew Masi, and Bright Agbedeyi.
They were arraigned last July 13, 2020 on three counts bordering on hijack of a fishing vessel.
The Federal Government’s counsel, Laraban Magaji, said the defendants committed the offence in May on international waters off Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire.
He said they violated Section 3 of Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act, 2019, and were liable to punishment under Section 2 of the same Act.
Each defendant pleaded not guilty, following which trial commenced and the prosecution called its first three witnesses.
In the course of subsequent proceedings, Magaji sought to tender extra judicial statements obtained from the defendants by the Nigerian Navy while they were in detention.
But Counsel to the first, third, fourth, eighth and ninth defendants, Omoniyi Aruwayo, opposed the admission of the alleged confessional statements.
He and other defence counsel argued that the information in the statements was obtained under duress, after several beatings and prayed the court to reject same.
To determine whether the statements were obtained voluntarily, Justice Faji directed parties to commence a trial within trial. When that came to an end on December 14, the judge reserved ruling.
In his ruling yesterday, the judge said after a close examination of the statements, he found a clear variance between the time those statements were said to have been obtained and an accompanying video tape which raised doubt about whether they were truly obtained at the same time.
The judge observed that the prosecution provided no explanation as to what led to the differences in the time of both the statements and the video.
He said: “The differential in the time of the video and the statements cast doubt in the mind if these statements were not obtained under threat and intimidation. I definitely doubt the statements were obtained voluntarily.
“I conclude that the time variance means that the difference in the time is when the defendants were taken out to be tortured and made the statements under duress.
“The statements of the defendants, even if relevant, are subject to the test of voluntariness
“The prosecution having failed to prove the cause of the variance between the time when the statements were obtained and the video, is worrisome.
“The court frowns at beating of the defendants while obtaining their statements…
The prosecution has failed to establish that the statements of the defendants were taken voluntarily and same is hereby marked rejected.”
The judge adjourned further hearing in the case till February 9 and 10.