Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court in Abuja, on Tuesday, disqualified himself from further presiding over the trial of eight defendants accused of acts of terrorism, hostage taking and murder of a total of nine expatriates.
Justice Tsoho’s action followed the allegation by six of the eight defendants that the judge was bias against them.
The Judge in a bench ruling, withdrew from the case and ordered the file to be returned to the Acting Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice Abdu Kafarati, for reassignment to another judge.
Speaking through their respective lawyers in court on Tuesday, the six defendants said they had lost confidence in Justice Tsoho following the judge’s ruling of April 25, 2017, reversing his earlier decision that they be remanded in prison and that they be held in the custody of the Department of State Services throughout the period of their trial.
Justice Tsoho had on March 14 after the defendants pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts preferred against them, ordered the defendants to be remanded in Kuje Prison, but again on April 25, upon an application by the prosecution, ordered that they remained in the custody of the DSS.
The defence lawyers, after meeting with the six defendants for about 15 minutes as directed by the judge on Tuesday, also said that their clients were complaining of harsh conditions in the DSS custody, failing health and deprivation of access to their family members.
Some of the defendants were also said to have claimed that their family members did not know their whereabouts.
Those defendants who sought the transfer of the case to another judge were, an alleged leader of a splinter group of Boko Haram, Mohammed Usman (a.k.a. Khalid Albarnawi); his “second wife,” Halima Haliru, and four suspected members of the group.
The rest of the defendants who expressed lack of confidence in Justice Tsoho were, Mohammed Saleh, Umar Bello (a.k.a. Abu Azzan), Mohammed Salisu (a.k.a. Datti) and Yakubu Haliru (a.k.a Bello Maishayi).
The two other defendants who insisted that the case should continue before the judge were Mohammed Sani (a.k.a. Ukasha/Dan/Asabe/Yellow) and Abubakar Habibu (a.k.a. Habibu Sahara).
With the exception of Haliru, who was accused of aiding acts of terrorism, the rest of the seven defendants were said to be members of a splinter group of Boko Haram, known as Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan a.k.a. ANSARU.
They were accused of, among other terrorism offences, taking hostage and murder of nine British and Italian expatriates between 2011 and 2013 in Sokoto, Kebbi, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe and other states in the North.
Following the arraignment of the defendants on March 14, and subsequent re-arraignment following an amendment of the list of defendants, bringing the number of the defendants from seven to eight, the court had fixed Tuesday for commencement of trial.
The lead prosecuting counsel, Labaran, had informed the court of his team’s preparedness to commence trial.
But following complaints by some of the defendants, the judge had to give a 15-minute break to allow the defendants to brief their respective lawyers.
Speaking for the first, fourth and the sixth defendants (Usman, Saleh and Haliru), Mr. Samuel Attah, said, “They said the court ruled before that they should be taken to prison and the DSS violated the order and refused to transfer them to prison before the court, again, ordered that they should remain in DSS custody.
“They said they have no confidence in this honourable court to continue this case.”
Attah said despite informing them that the transfer of the case would imply that the case would start afresh, “they said their lives are more important to them than the delay in their trial.”
Also speaking for the fifth defendant (Bello), Mr. Elisha Oloruntoba, said “his complaint is that his health is deteriorating day by day and that he was never asthmatic before he got to the custody of the DSS but he is now asthmatic.”
Oloruntoba also said his client complained that the DSS personnel never allowed him to contact his relatives on phone despite granting such courtesy to many other detainees.
Mr. Aliyu Momoh, who spoke for Nuhu and Haliru (the seventh and eighth defendants respectively), also noted that Haliru (who was until Tuesday being represented by the lawyer defending the first, fourth and sixth defendants), was not part of the meeting where the decision to seek the transfer of the case to another judge was taken.
Meanwhile, counsel for the second defendant (Sani), Mr. Leonard Obiji, and that of the third defendant (Habibu), Nathaniel Adejinle, said their clients had expressed confidence in the judge, and pleaded that their trial be allowed to continue before the same judge.