Arrest of the Untouchables

Posted by News Express | 13 October 2016 | 3,072 times

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Following allegations of corruption, there was a massive arrest of Judges in Indonesia in May this year. But it was not a big public issue, essentially because the country has a history of dealing with such cases. For instance, in July 2014, Indonesia’s anti-corruption court sentenced the former head of the country’s Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar, to life imprisonment for bribery and money laundering. Mochtar was found guilty of accepting more than US $3.37 million in bribes to tamper with the results of no fewer than 10 local elections while serving as head judge; and with laundering more than US $15.2 million from 2002 until his arrest in October 2013.

Interestingly, in the same October 2013 that the Indonesian top Judge was ending his career in bribe-taking, police in Colombia swooped on two judges and nine judicial officers. While Judge Francisco Javier Borbón was accused of accepting a bribe of US$2,600 to change the sentence of a man convicted of embezzlement from home detention to parole, a second judge, Ricardo Rodriguez, was accused of negotiating freedom for criminals also in exchange for bribe. In the United States, Senior District Judge Jack T. Camp was in 2010 arrested for allegedly using cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs with an Atlanta stripper. In January 2013, nine traffic court judges in Philadelphia were also arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, perjury, making false statements to the FBI and aiding and abetting.

There is hardly any country in the world where Judges are not under serious scrutiny. In February last year, Bosnia’s State Investigative and Protection Agency arrested Azra Miletic, a judge of the Appeal Department of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for allegedly taking a bribe. In September 2012, Giancarlo Giusti, an Italian anti-mafia judge bagged a four-year imprisonment for accepting luxury hotel stays and the services of Eastern European call girls – all paid for by the mafia. Described by the prosecutor as being “obsessed with sex”, Giusti was found guilty of receiving 70,000 Euros in cash and kind (including what was described as “notte di amore” – nights of passion in the arms of prostitutes) from the ‘Ndrangheta mafia of Calabria.

While many judges have been arrested, tried and convicted for corruption in Bulgaria, the 2010 coordinated action against a municipal judge, Slavcho Petkov, should teach our authorities some lessons about sting operations. A convicted thief had been told the price of his freedom by the corrupt judge but the convict could only make part payment with a pledge to settle the balance later. Following a tip off, the police were monitoring the negotiations and had supplied the bribe money in marked bills. The judge was picked up at 11pm on 20th October 2010 inside a parked vehicle, as he was handed the loot!

The cases in India were similar. In September last year, two lower court judges were arrested on charges of taking money to settle cases, having been caught on camera negotiating the bribe. Five months earlier in April, following another sting operation, the Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested a judicial officer at a railway station while accepting a bribe from an advocate seeking job as a public notary.

In an August 2012 verdict which upheld the compulsory retirement of a District and Sessions Judge, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the standard of conduct expected of a judge is much higher than that of an ordinary person. The said judge was working with a lawmaker to expunge some adverse court records, a conduct described as “most reprehensible” by the Indian Supreme Court which stated: “His conduct has tarnished the image of the judiciary and he disentitled himself from continuation in judicial service on that count alone. A judge, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. The credibility of the judicial system is dependent upon the judges who man it. For a democracy to thrive, every judge must discharge his judicial functions with integrity, impartiality and intellectual honesty.”

What the foregoing says quite clearly is that while judges are accorded the utmost of respect in the discharge of their onerous responsibility, those among them who cross the boundaries of legality are also usually treated like common felons in most countries. And to the extent that the judicial arm of government has been marred by several allegations of corruption in our country, it is no surprise that many people would hail the current exercise that puts a spotlight on the conduct of judges.

For a long time in Nigeria, there has been this notion that once you wear the robe of a Judge, you are above reproach no matter how notorious you are. It is almost as if we have conferred on our Judges immunity to commit all manner of egregious infractions. Not anymore. That for me is the import of the “shock therapy” applied last week by the State Security Service (SSS). All those cash-and-carry Judges (and interestingly, Nigerians actually know many of them) who trade in spurious injunctions would by now know that the market is over and that there are consequences for their actions. That is good for the health of our society.

Before I continue, let me reiterate, as readers of this column will attest, that I am always protective of the judiciary. That is despite the fact that if you reside in Abuja, easily the global headquarters of rumour mongering, you cannot but hear disturbing tales about some of our judges. In our country today, many politicians not only have their personal lawyers, they also have their personal judges. Yet, my main point has always been that except the authorities can isolate, investigate and bring to justice these ignoble characters, we should not destroy the entire institution with allegations not backed by credible evidence. As bad as the situation may seem, many of our judges are actually honest people who are being sullied by the antics of a few bad eggs, some of whom may have handled high-profile political cases.

It is therefore for that reason I feel very worried about the manner in which the State Security Service (SSS) went about its assignment as well as what could become an undue politicization of the entire process, if care is not taken. Midnight arrests and the kind of brigandage reported in Port Harcourt were unnecessary. These judges could have been formally invited for interrogation and if they failed to report, they could have been quietly picked up in their courts. And it doesn’t help that some of the judges involved have had issues with the SSS that is fast assuming a notorious reputation for lawlessness in the discharge of its duties.

We must make it clear that at all times, and in all circumstances, agents of state should never behave like licensed thugs. I subscribe to the position of the much respected Professor Fidelis Oditah, QC, SAN, that “the manner of the arrests and attempted abduction represents the height of impunity and breakdown of law and order” and that the rule of law must prevail. In the examples I cited above, there was no recourse to the use of brute force; due process of the law was applied in dealing with the crooked judges and the same could have been done here.

Therefore, I will like to admonish the media to be careful in the kind of information they dish out, especially about people who may not be able to defend themselves in the public space. It would be very wrong to damage the reputation of these judges on the basis of hearsay from “anonymous” sources. They deserve to be given fair hearing and that can only happen if they are not pronounced guilty even before a court trial where evidence should be presented to prove the cases against them. But that is not to say that there is no value in what the SSS has done.

President Muhammadu Buhari came to office with a promise to fight corruption and this may very well be a defining moment for him, essentially because the fight against graft is impossible in an environment where judges are on the take. That is why the president has to be firm, fair and even-handed in the manner in which this matter is handled and the communication of the efforts must be strategic because propaganda, which seems to be the default mode of this administration, will be counter-productive. And the trial of the judges must be prompt in order to posit an antithesis to what is currently wrong with our system while sending a signal that when Nigerians go to court to seek equity, they will no longer be frustrated by the antics of some corrupt judges.

However, to the extent that many people can read between the lines about the fact that the SSS investigations arose from tribunal cases that did not go the way of the ruling party, efforts must also be made to ensure that the pro-APC crooked judges, and there are quite a few of them, are not spared. That is the only way the current arrest and trial of judges on allegations that border on abuse of office can signal a serious commitment to institutional reform by the Buhari presidency rather than another partisan agenda to deal with the opposition.

Meanwhile, I have read the misgivings of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN); the interventions by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) leadership and the first reaction by the National Judicial Commission (NJC). But, I am sorry to say, they are part of the problem because they failed to deal with the rot. Where notorious judges have been identified in the past, all the NJC ever did was to recommend them for retirement, no matter the level of the complicity of those judges in criminal matters. That is not the way a self-respecting institution that is meant to be at the epicenter of justice in our country should treat those among them who violate the law they expect others to uphold.

In a recent report titled “Go home and sin no more: Corrupt judges escaping from justice in Nigeria”, SERAP disclosed that no fewer than 64 judges were disciplined between 2009 and 2014 for corrupt practices. “During this period, the NJC concluded at least 105 cases of alleged corruption allegations/misconduct against judges”, said SERAP executive director, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni who argued that not handing over such Judges for prosecution “has left a destructive gap in judicial accountability in Nigeria, and resulted in other agencies of government with no mandate, expertise and experience in the field, getting involved in the efforts to combat judicial corruption.”

It is sad that it has to come to this but by using “esprit de corps” to shield crooked judges from being treated like the criminals that they are, the NJC, and to a large extent, many of our senior lawyers, have unwittingly helped to damage the institution. While I understand the point being made about the judiciary being a separate (and very important) arm of government that needs protection, I take solace in the words of a former Indian Chief Justice that “in the hierarchy of values, judicial integrity is above judicial independence.”

•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. Adeniyi can be reached via 

Source: News Express

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