Posted by Emeka Ugwuonye | 22 April 2013 | 3,456 times
My commitment to due process of the law was not just a matter of my great legal education and scholarship. It has been also a matter of my entire life experience from infancy in a civil war and through my early adolescence and the beginning of adulthood, all spent in Enugu State of Nigeria, mostly in the village. Whether it was a land dispute in the village between one clan and another, or it was some extended family opportunistically turning against a young widow and accusing her of disrespect to some elderly males, or it was a childless old woman being accused of witchcraft; I saw issues of due process unfolding before my curious and youthful eyes. Added to this was the fact that my grandfather was the chief judge of the customary court, and I was said to have been his reincarnate. I believe I was custom-made to advocate for due process.
Here, I would like to share the unusual insight that came from my reading of cases and trials in the Bible. The entire Bible is littered with cases and trials, judgments and many real due process challenges. Any lawyer that pays close attention to these cases has so much to learn and to ponder over. Obviously one of the most outstanding of those cases was the trial of Jesus Christ himself. Pontius Pilate did not have sufficient evidence to convict Jesus. But he had to please the religious leaders of the Jewish faith then and he delivered Jesus in judgment to them for him to be crucified, which was the major form of capital punishment at that time. As a student of constitutional law, I understood the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment” and due process when I read the case of Jesus again and again.
In this piece, my attention focuses on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 25 – Paul’s trial before Festus and Paul’s appeal to Emperor Augustus Caesar to avoid a plot against his life.
Governor Antonius Felix had tried Paul, but left him bound in chains in Caesarea. When Porcius Festus replaced
Felix, Paul’s Jewish accusers decided to re-try the case against Paul. After three days of Festus arriving at Caesarea, the capital of the Judean province, he immediately made a trip to Jerusalem, probably the most important city of the province. While in Jerusalem, the high priest and the chief men of the Jews petitioned to Festus against Paul, asking the new governor to summon Paul to Jerusalem for a new trial. Meanwhile, they set an ambush along the road to kill Paul on his way to answer any such summon.
Upon the completion of the transition from the governorship of Felix to that of Festus, Paul’s case was one of the first leadership challenges that faced Festus.
Though it had been two years, the case of Paul was still important to the religious leaders. They hoped that the new governor would summon Paul to appear before him for trial again in Jerusalem. But they were only trying to use the trial as a cover for something else they had in mind – to kill Paul.
One could see that Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea was actually a providential provision of protective custody against the murderous intentions of the religious leaders. It was also for Paul a season of rest and replenishment after his years of hard missionary service, preparing him for the challenges in the years ahead.
The religious leaders knew that Paul would be acquitted in any fair trial. Therefore, they didn’t really want Paul to be put on trial again; they wanted to ambush and murder him before the trial could take place. Now for me, these bear direct inspirational implications for my own experience. The Nigerian Government knew that I did not commit any offence whatsoever. They knew that I did not violate any American law, and I did not even violate any Nigerian law. They were merely using the criminal justice system as a cover for their true intentions – which was to kill me and prevent me from revealing the corruption perpetrated by some top officials of Nigeria. They laid an ambush for me at the Murtala Mohammed Airport where they intercepted me.
One could see a growth of corruption even in the story of Paul. In Acts 23, where the plot to murder Paul was first launched, we find that it was the zealots who were responsible. Now, in Acts 25, we find that the leaders are initiating the very thing in which they were only tangentially involved earlier. Likewise, in my case, my problem started from a mere disagreement with a Nigerian Ambassador that hated the Igbos so passionately and had continued to glorify his exploits in the war against the Igbos. But due to several complicate chain of events, the Nigerian Government and the Presidency were now all out to destroy me.
But Festus refused to put Paul on trial again in Jerusalem. Instead, the governor answered that Paul should be kept at Caesarea, and that he himself was going back there shortly. “Therefore,” Festus said, “let those who have authority among you go down with me and accuse this man, to see if there is any fault in him.” He refused to grant their request for a change of venue, and this was another way that God protected Paul’s life. That was due process at work. Due process is another name for God’s work. It is a fact well known to people familiar with the administration of justice that venue is critical to the outcome of cases. Whether James Ibori is tried in Asaba or London or whether Henry Okah is tried in Nigeria or South Africa, would make a difference. The Nigerian Government knows this too well and that is why the Nigerian officials move cases from one location to another according the plan of the day.
Festus re-opened the trial in Caesarea and presided in judgment. Sitting on the judgment seat, he commanded Paul to be brought. In other words, Paul’s case was called up. As they had done before, the religious leaders made accusations without evidence against Paul. In response, Paul confidently answered for himself: “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.”
When my case was called up in Nigerian courts, I made similar defence as Paul did by saying that I had violated neither the laws of Nigeria nor the Laws of the United States nor any other law known in any civilised society.
Many in the Bible were the targets of false accusations (such as Joseph and Daniel and even Jesus). But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favour, asked Paul: “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?” So Paul said: “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know.” Similarly, before Justice Christopher Balogun of the Lagos High Court, I made it clear that I stand before the American justice, and only America can try me, not Nigeria. I came to the Nigerian court well aware of the Paul’s trial and prepared to follow Paul’s defensive reasoning.
Paul continued his defence: “For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered: “You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!” Likewise, Judge Balogun told the EFCC that all the commission had alleged against Emeka Ugwuonye occurred in America. He asked: Why are you pursuing him here in Lagos? And like Felix, Judge Balogun told them that in America it occurred, in America it should be resolved. (It is this judgment that SaharaReporters and his hired hands would tell you is still on appeal in Nigeria).
The decision to appeal to Caesar was brilliant and only possible because Paul was a Roman citizen. It was the right of every Roman citizen to have his case heard by Caesar himself, after initial trials and appeals failed to reach a satisfactory decision. This was in effect an appeal to the supreme court of the Roman Empire. Rightly and wisely, Paul wanted to avoid martyrdom if he could. He wasn’t afraid to face the lions, but he didn’t want to put his head in a lion’s mouth if he could avoid it. Paul’s appeal made sense. He was convinced that the evidence was on his side and that he would win in a fair trial.
Festus was in a bind. He knew that the evidence and law of the case favoured Paul. But at the same time, he knew that the success of his tenure as a Governor of the Judean Province would depend on him and the religious leaders of the Jews getting along well. The difficulty faced by Festus was captured in his words as he presented the case of Paul to King Agrippa. Festus stated the case thus: “There is a certain man left a prisoner by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews petitioned me, asking me to render judgment against him. But I answered them that ‘It is not the custom of the Romans to judge an accused person guilty before the accused meets the accusers face to face, and has opportunity to answer for himself concerning the charge against him.’ ”
The above statement of Festus was a classic restatement of the meaning of due process – that a person cannot be found guilty until he has been given the opportunity to defend himself. As an avid student of due process, you can imagine how my mind rejoiced when I read this biblical account from my solitary confinement in the detention cell of the EFCC.
The remarkable due process challenge here was the pressure to decide the case in a particular way, regardless of the evidence. How often in our times do our judges face the pressure to decide cases in manners notwithstanding the evidence? Can you imagine a judge in Lagos, for instance? Her husband or relative is a businessman. She knows that the EFCC could accuse her husband or relative of something any day. And she is presiding over a case involving the EFCC. You can see from her decisions in such a case that she is under pressure. She denies bail where justice would have demanded that she grants it. She imposes impossible bail conditions where justice would have demanded lenient bail terms. She does all these just to please the EFCC.
And the EFCC continually uses blackmail to pressure the judges. You see a judge in Abuja, for instance. His wife or son or brother has a pending application for land in Abuja. And you sue the Minister of Abuja before such a judge. He would be under pressure to decide the case as would please the Minister of Abuja.
Due process of law is an ideal we shall live by each day. It confronts us every day of our lives. We are better humans when we come to realise that every individual should be entitled to equal treatment under the law and equal access to justice. The lessons of due process, which are lessons of life, demand that we stand for justice and truth and fairness in everything we do and in any case we are confronted with. If SaharaReporters truly were against injustice and corruption in Nigeria, it would not matter who the victim is. If Okey Ndibe ever stood for justice and fairness in Nigeria, he would be upset if a Nigerian citizen were to be detained without trial for five months. Instead, he gloats that he defeated such a man in a contest, albeit falsely. If Okey Ndibe were to be taken seriously, he would be consistent in something, anything.
Acknowledgment: The writer drew extensively from www.enduringwords.com © 2012 David Guzik.
•Ugwuonye, whose photo appears alongside this piece, is a U.S.-based lawyer admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.
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