Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Special Report: "My Lord, You Have Just Convicted An Innocent Man Today" By Charles Okah

Charles Okah

The number 7 represents a significant number for me.  I had spent 7 years in prison awaiting trial, I was born on the 7th month of the year, and judgement day for my terrorism trial was on the 7th day!

I therefore had no doubt in my mind that coupled with our innocence, the 7th day of March, 2018 wasn't just a coincidence and  would be the day of my freedom.


When the presiding judge, Justice Gabriel Kolawole on Wednesday, February 21 chose 2 weeks from that date to deliver judgement (double 7), I saw it as a sign that my freedom from injustice was at hand. Time wasn't on my side, so I began drafting my "freedom speech" in earnest. By the morning of March 7, after countless corrections and editing, I had memorized the speech and was ready to deliver it eloquently.

Since judgement was fixed for 1pm, we did not have to leave early. By 11am, we were asked to get ready in 30 minutes time. I wore a traditional Indian wedding costume which was handed down to me by my son who resides in Canada and who happened to be one of the defence witnesses in October 2017. Actually, the outfit, minus the cap and shoe which a friend bought, were his wedding costume because he did an Hindu traditional marriage. He had insisted I wore something different on judgement day.

By 11.30am, in a 7 - vehicle convoy of heavily armed security officers from the Prisons armed squad and the Directorate of State Security (DSS), we made our way to the Federal High Court. That was the last time I rehearsed my speech to my co-defendant who was relieved to finally escape the torment of listening to it. It went thus:

"Today, the 7th day of March, 2018, marks a watershed in the trajectory of my life as I have finally been discharged and acquitted from the trumped up charges of treason and terrorism brought up against me by the Nigerian State in the aftermath of the October 1st 2010 Independence Day bombing in Abuja.

Justice has prevailed today on the side of truth. And God's divine mercy has overruled human judgement.

Subsequently,  I have regained my freedom from a cruel and punitive incarceration at the Kuje prison after being stuck in the legal quagmire of Nigeria's pathetic criminal justice system for 7 years, the equivalent to a 10 year prison sentence! And this happened because in Nigeria, unfortunately, the mere act of filing charges, even the trumped up charges, carries along with it a strong presumption of guilt.

Fortunately, God has extricated me today from the cobweb of lies and deception that was adroitly woven around passion and prejudice. This is a scourge in Nigeria that is condemning many innocent citizens to the gallows, and releasing those who have the money and ties to wriggle their way out of due process.

During the period of my incarceration, I lost virtually everything. My freedom, my business, my reputation, and even my family. The years apart, especially under such humiliating and excruciating circumstances, would often dissolve the emotional bond between a husband and wife. And for my smaller children who were yet to bond firmly with their father, I am looking forward to building memories with them to make up for all the lost time.

My immediate priority is to attend to my health, reunite with my family, to dance with my children again, and meet my two adorable grandchildren, Ari and Ariella, who arrived in my absence.

I will also strive to build back my businesses from scratch. They were utterly destroyed by the agents of persecution.

But I have survived it all, and therefore use this opportunity to thank Jehovah God Almighty who gave me the strength of mind and force of character  to withstand the harshest weather of adversity. My gratitude goes to Festus Keyamo, SAN, who commenced my defence in 2010, and to Samuel Zibiri, SAN,  and El Shaddai Chambers who took it up from 2015 and concluded my defence free of charge.

My appreciation further goes to Oghenevo Otemu Esquire,  who also took up the defence of my codefendant, Obi Nwabueze on a pro bono basis. I will not forget to also thank the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria for providing such a fine defence team.

To my beloved family and the very few loyal friends who believed in my innocence and stood by me to the very end of this journey of pain. I say thank you.

Permit me to also pay tribute to you, the Gentlemen of the Nigerian Press, who tirelessly and fearlessly advocated for a fair trial in accordance with the ideals and tenets of the Rule of Law.

I will attempt to seek an audience with my brother, His Excellency, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to erase his erroneous impression that the Okah brothers were contracted by "certain Nigerians" to assassinate him on October 1st, 2010.

And following in the footsteps of the biblical Joseph, I hold no grudges today against anyone. The time has come for unity and reconciliation.
Thank you."

When we arrived at the Federal High Court in Maitama, we had to wait until about 1.45pm before the judge made his entry. My case, which was the only one scheduled for that day was called up. As we mounted the dock, nothing prepared me for a kangaroo judgement that I would have to endure for 4 hours and 30 minutes.

In my humble understanding of criminal justice, it is about proof, credible evidence and facts; major ingredients missing in the case against me.

I was therefore surprised that the judge began introducing conjecture of events where he wasn't present and for which the prosecution or my accusers bothered to carry out investigations.

Imagine without a proof that I was with my brother in an unnamed hotel room in March 2010, for which I even tendered Henry's international passport as proof he wasn't in Nigeria, the judge was quick to conclude that he believed the prosecution witnesses verbal testimony, and thereby linking me to the Warri bombing. Just like that!

The judge believed another false witness brought by the prosecutor who claimed I sent him to ship military uniforms through ABC Transport Company in padlocked boxes that were not inspected before shipping. Even the judge remarked during the trial that it was impossible for any courier company to issue a waybill without knowing the contents. But in his judgement, he completely forgot how he ridiculed that witness and said he believed that absurd transaction. Every Nigerian knows that it is impossible to ship anything through a courier company without a physical inspection as that is their Standard Operating Procedure.

My son brought proof of his school fees paid from the ₦2million I was accused of buying cars for the bombing. Just because the University of Kansas included two semester fees, including the one paid with the money I gave him, the judge added all the bills together to try and dismiss our evidence. And that is in spite of my son clarifying it to him during cross examination.

There were other such instances which seemed like deliberately trying to assist the prosecution by admitting a fake unsigned receipt of two cars where the supposed seller admitted twice during cross examination that the "first time he set his eyes on the car was at the DSS office" and yet Judge Kolawole chose to ignore that amongst many things. But what baffled me was that proof beyond reasonable doubt, facts and evidence didn't mean a thing to the judge for such a serious matter.

At a time during my trial, I asked Justice Kolawole why I wasn't granted bail like  he did for Senator Ali Ndume. The judge had said that my charge of treason tied his hands and that in the case of the Senator, he was accused of financing terrorism which attracted a 10 year sentence on conviction! Now was I not accused of financing terrorism? The judge in giving me a life sentence said that because he gave same to a former co-defendant in 2013, he couldn't go lower. He seemed to forget that our charges were completely different. One was related to treason and the other to terrorism.

I was questioned about the source of certain money in my account? The source came from a payment made into my Zenith Bank account by the British Government for a contract awarded to my company to build a floating jetty for the Nigerian Navy at Satellite Town barracks in Lagos. Had that money been paid by an ordinary citizen, the individual would have also been arrested and accused.

What about the 40 foot container that was seized by the DSS  on the pretext that it had traces of explosives? If the contents hadn't belonged  to the United States embassy in Nigeria, I would have been framed. The so-called explosive laden container was never brought to court as an exhibit. It is rusting away somewhere at the Tin Can Island Port in Lagos. If it wasn't that the US Embassy owned  the contents, I would have been done for. After confirming from the embassy that they placed the order, the DSS couldn't charge my company for importing explosives, although I was told that the US Embassy quickly revoked the contract awarded to my company to distance themselves.

As the judge was getting to a close, I quickly made up a shot remark in my head; expecting him to give us the opportunity to speak before his sentence. But he didn't. What I would have said if given the chance following the kangaroo judgement was "my Lord,  you have just convicted an innocent man today. I will not accept this travesty of justice and will appeal at the appellate Court. Today is just a break in the journey. Greater men like the biblical Joseph experienced a moment like this. I still have hope. My hope and consolation is that at the end of this long and winding road, waiting for the two sides at the last bus stop is a woman of unblemished integrity and unswerving rectitude. She is impartial and blind but sagacious. She holds up in her hand a pair of scales for everyone to see, and I notice that it's being held evenly. She does not believe in two opposing conditions at the same time. She does not believe in justice and injustice. Hatred and love, strife and peace. She doesn't believe in truth today, and falsehood tomorrow; or in good and then in evil. She believes in justice and regards it as an eternal and indestructible principle. She believes that justice reigns supreme, and that, therefore, all that is called injustice is fleeting and illusory. May God bless Nigeria."

The ride back to Kuje prison that night was a sad one for us. I imagined the number of innocent people setup and jailed in Nigeria everyday. By the time we arrived it was already late and the inmates in our custody were terribly unhappy, of course some because I would be demanding back my items I gave out. Everything had been shared out except for my books. The next day, I began unpacking and making my cell habitable and comfortable for the long haul.

I remain optimistic about the future and look forward to reuniting with my family.

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