A South African court has postponed to March the sentencing of the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), Henry Okah, who was convicted for terrorism-related offences in a South African court.
Okah was found guilty of a 13-count charge of conspiracy to commit terrorism by masterminding two car bomb attacks in Abuja on October 1, 2010, in which 12 people were killed and 36 injured.
He was arrested in Johannesburg a day after the two car bombs exploded during the 50th anniversary of Nigeria's independence.
At a session yesterday at South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, the presiding judge, Neels Claassen, decided to suspend pronouncing sentence on Okah, who was convicted on January 21 following the change of his legal team.
If the hearing had held yesterday, witnesses from Nigeria and the United States would have testified in a bid to mitigate the sentencing of Okah following the request by the former defence counsel, Mr. Lucky Multulanta, at his last appearance on February 1, to give witnesses time to get to South Africa to testify. Okah intended calling at least five people to testify.
According to reports from a Lagos-based private television station, Channels Television and the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), the judge postponed the case again from March 18 to 20 after taking the application from Multulanta to withdraw from the case.
Multulanta had told Judge Claassen that the team was withdrawing from the case to allow a new legal team take over the trial of the case that might go to appeal.
"Having discussed with my client, we came to an agreement that it is appropriate for us to step down from handling the matter and allow a new legal team to take over from the mitigation of sentence to the appeal court hearing.
"My client has the right to change his legal team, and now he has decided to change the legal team representing him in this case, we are both happy about the decision," Multulanta had told the court.
He had asked the court to grant the legal team postponement to call at least five witnesses from Nigeria and the United States to testify at the mitigation of sentence hearing.
Justice Claassen had earlier granted the defence the postponement from February 28 to March 4 to call their witnesses.
"We have experienced a lot of frustration in getting out witnesses to come to South Africa to testify on the mitigation of sentence for my client
"I don't know the reason why it is difficult for the South Africa Embassy in Nigeria to issue visas to our witnesses. We have made all efforts to get the visas but up till now, their visas have not been issued," Multulanta said.
But Justice Claassen expressed his disappointment in the withdrawal of Okah's legal team.
"On the last sitting of the court, I told you that there would be no further postponement in this case, now you are coming to announce your withdrawal from the case.
"I must tell you that I am very disappointed about this decision. How am I sure that it is not a deliberate attempt to further delay the administration of justice?
"I just hope this is not a tactic to further delay the court processes, both of you may be happy about the change of the legal team, but it is against the legal procedure for you to take such decisions after several postponements.
"Changing the mainstream at this stage is a very serious thing to do. I have to show my displeasure about the way and manner you have handled the case," the judge said.
Prosecuting counsel, Shauns Abrahams, told the court that the change in the legal team was aimed at frustrating the court proceedings.
"My Lord, this sudden change in legal team of the accused is a deliberate attempt by him to frustrate the court proceeding.
"The defence counsel approached the Nigeria High Commission in Pretoria for visas to visit Nigeria and talk to their witnesses on February 12 and the officials at the embassy asked them to come back the following day for their visas. But up till now, they have not gone back for their visas.
"Only for the legal team to say they are having problem getting to their witnesses, this is all attempt to frustrate administration of justice," Abrahams said.
The judge ruled that the accused has the right to change his lawyer at will. "Inasmuch as I am not happy about the change of legal team at this stage of the proceeding, I must say the accused person has the right to change his legal team at will.
"But I must say this is going to be the very last time this case will be adjourned," Claassen said.
The new lawyer, Gerrit Miller, asked the court for an adjournment to allow him prepare and consult with his client.
Claassen deferred further hearing in the matter until March 18 and 20.
"This is really the final adjournment. I will grant your application for this first and final adjournment; you must tell your client that I will no longer tolerate any further adjournment even if he decides to change his legal team again at the 11 hour," Claassen said.