UK Must not extradite Udoamaka Okoronkwo

Ordinarily one should ask that a Nigerian facing trial abroad should come home to face Nigeria’s justice especially where the crime is an economic crime against Nigeria. But Nigeria’s extradition request for Udoamaka Okoronkwo is no ordinary case.

It was reported that The British Government has demanded a guarantee from the Federal Government before it could extradite the alleged female accomplice of ex-Governor James Ibori of Delta State, Miss Udoamaka Okoronkwo.

Some officials of the British High Commission in Abuja have also begun discussions with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on the guarantee and modalities for the extradition of the suspect.

Ibori, alongside four others, is currently facing over 60-count charge for money laundering while in office between 1999 and 2007.

Others are: Ms Udoamaka, Mer Engineering Nigeria limited, Bainenox Limited, and Sagicon Nig. Limited.Although all the five suspects were initially arraigned before a Federal High Court in Kaduna in December 2007, the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division on December 19, 2008 said it was wrong to arraign the former governor in far-away Kaduna .

The case was later reassigned to the Federal High Court, Asaba.Findings, however, revealed that the trial has been stalled because Udoamaka, a key suspect, is still holed up in London having been confined by the British Government.

Ms Udoamaka is also undergoing trial in Britain with three other ladies for alleged corruption and money laundering. The Crown Prosecution Service plans to commence the trial of the four women as well as Ibori’s UK-based lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil, in September.

The other suspects are: Bimpe Pogoson (Ibori’s former assistant), his sister, Christie-Ibie Ibori, and his wife, Theresa Nkoyo-Ibori.

The EFCC counsel, Ibrahim Isiyaku (SAN) had on April 28 asked the court in Asaba to issue a bench warrant to compel the appearance of Ms Uzoamaka on June 4.

Ibori’s lead counsel, Joseph Dauda (SAN), had also aligned himself with the prayers of the EFCC to compel Okoronkwo to appear.But at the resumption of the trial of the ex-governor on June 4, Ms Udoamaka was not available.

The trial judge, Justice Marcel Awokulehin, however, adjourned the case till July 13, 2009 to enable the Federal Government extradite Uzoamaka.

The non-appearance of the suspect, however, forced the EFCC to approach the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa (SAN) for the extradition of Uzoamaka in line with the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between the UK and Nigeria.

Based on the request of the EFCC, the Attorney-General of the Federation, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa (SAN) wrote the Crown Prosecution in the UK to extradite Uzoamaka.

Investigations revealed that the British authorities have written the Federal Government, through the AGF, on its readiness to extradite Udoamaka.

A source in The Presidency said: “The AGF has received a formal letter on the willingness of Britain to extradite Uzoamaka with a caveat that the Federal Government must produce a guarantee that the suspect will not escape from Nigeria.

“They want a written bond from the government. They also want a team from the British High Commission to meet with the EFCC on the modalities for the extradition of Udoamaka, her safety and how she will be returned to Britain for trial in September.

“The Crown Prosecution Service is insisting that one of the conditions for Uzoamaka’s bail is that she will not travel out of the UK. They said since the suspect is an influential Nigerian, they want a guarantee from the Federal Government that she will be available for trial in the UK anytime she is needed.

“This demand of the UK government touches on a vital diplomatic issue and that is why the officials of the British High Commission have opened up discussions with the Federal Government.

It was gathered that the AGF Aondoakaa had forwarded Britain’s response to the extradition request to the Chairman of the EFCC, Mrs. Farida Waziri.

Another source added: “In fact, the officials of the British High Commission have started working out extradition terms with a team of EFCC officials.

“The two sides met on Thursday in Abuja on how Udoamaka would be extradited. We hope that in the next one week or two, they should have finalised the terms before the guarantee is issued by either the AGF or the EFCC.

Now this new development is funny because just last week, Saharareporters carried the story below:-

Umaru Yar’adua’s Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, and former Governor James Ibori of Delta State have perfected a plan they hope would spring Ibori’s mistress, Udoamaka Okoronkwo, from a British court where she awaits trial as an accomplice in money laundering. As part of the move, Aondoakaa has filed an extradition application for the woman.

She has also hired a new firm of solicitors in England to press the case for a new bail allegedly to enable her to voluntarily return to Nigeria and stand trial.

Ms. Okoronkwo, regarded as the former governor’s major accomplice, is undergoing prosecution in Britain as part of a corruption and money laundering trial that has so far trapped three other women associated with Ibori as well as Ibori’s lawyer.

The Crown Prosecution Service plans to commence the trial of the four women as well as Ibori’s UK-based lawyer, Bhadresh Gohil, in September. Apart from Ms. Okoronkwo, the other suspects are Bimpe Pogoson (Ibori’s former assistant), his sister, Christie-Ibie Ibori, and his wife, Theresa Nkoyo-Ibori. Ibori’s associates are currently under different conditions of bail – and stuck in London. Along with the women, Mr. Gohil is due to face trial for his role in facilitating money laundering for Ibori during the former governor’s eight-year administration.

Nigerian anti-corruption officials estimate that Ibori laundered about 70% of the revenue allocations that accrued to his oil-rich state during his tenure. Sources within Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission as well as British law enforcement disclosed that Ibori used laundered funds to purchase expensive real estate around the world as well as cars, aircraft and business. His illicitly acquired companies span Nigeria, Canada and the United Kingdom. US authorities have also commenced investigations into Ibori’s money laundering activities in Maryland, Florida, and California, according to US government sources.

Ibori’s high-priced lawyers in the UK, with the cooperation of Aondoakaa, had used several legal manoeuvres to thwart the trial of the former governor’s accomplices at the Southwark Crown Court. But those manoeuvres – including Aondoakaa’s secret letter to British authorities to the effect that the former governor was not a target of corruption investigation in Nigeria – failed to derail the trial of Ibori’s accomplices, now scheduled to begin in earnest September 14 2009. Judge Rivlin will preside.

Ibori’s strategy has changed in the face of the looming trial. His desperate goal now is to sabotage Ms Okoronkwo’s prosecution in England, the calculation being that his former mistress played the most extensive role in his laundering activities.

Two sources close to Ibori told Saharareporters that the ex-governor became desperate to free Ms Okoronkwo, mother of one his numerous children, following his mistress’s threats to expose him if it becomes clear she faces the prospect of a jail term. We have learnt that Udoamaka Okoronkwo sent warnings to Ibori that she would not protect him when he has abandoned her and is flaunting a relationship with a much younger mistress, Senami Sosu.

“Ibori knows that if the British courts nail Udoamaka, she is capable of spilling the beans on his activities,” said one of the ex-governor’s friends. “That’s why he’s doing everything to get her out of England – and back to Nigeria.”

Okoronkwo was arrested at a Paris airport while she waited to take off in an Air France plane en route to Lagos. She was arrested on a European warrant and repatriated to the UK.

Prior to her arrest, Okoronkwo had skipped bail in the UK and moved to join Ibori in Nigeria at the end of 2007. Once in Nigeria, she was arrested, detained and briefly tried by the EFCC. However, the Yar’adua regime intervened to set her free on bail. The Court of Appeal stopped her trial, which was going on before a Federal High Court judge in Kaduna. The appellate court then directed that Ibori be “tried” at a court within the jurisdiction where his crimes were committed. A few months ago, the Yar’adua government approved the creation of a Federal High Court in Asaba where a judge and prosecutor selected by Ibori are currently presiding.

The made-by-Ibori court headed by Justice Awodehin is now the centerpiece of the ploy to set Ms Okoronkwo free from British justice. Under Ibori and Aondoakaa’s direction, both Justice Awodehin and the prosecutor in Ibori’s mock trial have requested that Okoronkwo be extradited from the UK to stand trial in Asaba.

Our sources in the UK said Aondoakaa has already sent Okoronkwo’s extradition request to the British Home Secretary. If Okoronkwo is extradited to Nigeria, the 49-year old mother would be set free in Nigeria within a month, according to the plans put in place by the AGF and the sham Federal High Court in Asaba.

Last week, Okoronkwo suddenly applied to British authorities for the return of her daughter’s passport which she had agreed to surrender as part of the conditions for her release from prison earlier in the year. Her lawyers contend that her daughter needs to attend an assessment for schooling purposes in Nigeria. In order to catch the Crown Prosecution Service unawares, her solicitors left the application as late as possible. Judge Rivlin denied Okoronkwo’s request to have her daughter’s passport returned.

Following the sudden application, UK prosecutors and Metropolitan police officers have tightened surveillance around Ms. Okoronkwo to forestall any plans by her to flee the UK. “She is considered a flight risk at this time because it is highly doubtful that the extradition request from Nigeria will be granted,” said a source. One prosecution source In England told Saharareporters that Okoronkwo would be tried in absentia if she flees the UK at this stage.

Shortly after Okoronkwo’s application was turned down, her lawyers told the court that she would be prepared to return to prison until June 16th when her child was due to return with her nanny to Nigeria. One British source said that this development implied that she had already booked tickets to fly back to Nigeria.

Judge Rivlin informed Okoronkwo that, if she agreed to return to custody, it would be until the beginning of the trial in September. Rather than do that, she quickly withdrew the offer. She also filed another bail application for herself.

In another move, Okoronkwo sacked her original solicitors, Corker Binning Solicitors, and replaced them with Byrne & Partners, a firm said to be more “tenacious” than her previous lawyers. Last Friday, her new lawyers presented her bail application, arguing that Mrs. Okoronkwo needs bail to “voluntarily” return back to Nigeria to face trial before the Federal High Court in Asaba alongside Ibori.

Sources in Nigeria’s Ministry of Justice in Abuja told Saharareporters that her application was built on the extradition request forwarded by Attorney General Aondoakaa. The sources the Home Office in London had received Aondoakaa’s application.

But a legal source in Britain described the odds of the UK meeting the extradition request as slim. He said, “Section 88 of the Extradition Act 2003 in the UK provides that, where the appropriate judge is informed that a person whose extradition is been sought has been charged with an offence in the UK, he must adjourn the extradition hearing until the domestic proceedings have been resolved.” He added: “These powers only apply, however, once the extradition hearing has begun. Section 22 covers proceedings under Part 1 of the Extradition Act 2003 and section 88 covers proceedings under Part 2 of the Extradition Act 2003.”

The source said Section 88 of the Extradition Act 2003 would nullify Aondoakaa’s extradition request since domestic proceedings in the UK take precedence over an extradition request. In court on Friday, Judge Rivlin made it clear that Okoronkwo’s defense barrister would have an uphill job persuading him to allow her to return to Nigeria. The judge also told Okoronkwo’s new lawyer that it would be in his client’s best interests to abandon her application for bail as others are charged along with her and standing trial in the UK.

Judge Rivkin indicated that the minimum he would expect to even consider bail would be an affidavit from the AGF of Nigeria confirming that Okoronkwo would have her passport taken from her and kept in custody until the trial. A source in Abuja told Saharareporters that Aondoakaa was likely to have done the affidavit already and forwarded it expeditiously to London. However, the CPS would likely draw Judge Rivlin’s attention to the fact that all requests to Aondoakaa for evidence and other assistance on Ibori had been routinely ignored or rejected.

A legal analyst in Britain told us that Byrne & Partners, given its reputation for “tenacity,” was likely “to make another go at persuading the judge to approve bail for their client.” Judge Rivkin had told the defense that, should they apply for bail again, they must serve a skeleton argument prior to the court date, and it must contain supporting documents – including, most likely, Aondoakaa’s affidavit.

“Yet, if the defense opts to do this, they would provoke a mini-open court session,” said a London-based Nigerian lawyer. “The prosecutors are bound to respond with their own skeleton argument. If the AGF of Nigeria produces an affidavit, the prosecution might seek to cross-examine him. And this would make for legal fireworks.”

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