The Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, on Wednesday, struck out a charge that indicted the former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke to the illegal diversion of about $1.6billion from proceeds of sales of petroleum products belonging to the Federal Government.
Justice Nnamdi Dimgba struck out the allegation contained in count-eight of a money laundering charge marked FHC/Abj/CR/121/2016, which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, lodged before the court.
The court premised its decision on the fact that though the former Minister's name was mentioned in the charge, she was however not listed as one of the defendants.
Those already on trial over the alleged fraud are an oil mogul and ally to the ex-Minister, Mr. Jide Omokore, former Managing Director of the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company, NPDC, Victor Briggs, former Group Executive Director, Exploration and Production of the NNPC, Abiye Membere, former Manager, Planning and Commercial of the NNPC, David Mbanefo.
The defendants were hitherto answering to a nine-count criminal charge.
However, the court, by its ruling yesterday, reduced charges against them to eight-counts, having expunged the aspect that accused Diezani of aiding the defendants to divert funds, contrary to section 18 (a) of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act 2011 (as amended and punishable under section 15 (3) of the same Act.
Justice Dimgba took the decision after he rejected an application the embattled ex-Minister filed through her lawyer, Dr. Onyechi Ikpeazu, SAN, seeking to be joined as a defendant in the case.
Ikpeazu, SAN, specifically approached the court for, "An order pursuant to section 36(1), (5) & (6) (a-e) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended; sections 216(1), (2), (3) & (4) and 217 of the Adminsitration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015- amending the charge by adding the applicant, Diezani Alison-Madueke, as the 7th defendant, or as a defendant (as the case may be), having regard to count 8 of the charge in which her name appears as a defendant".
An order, "mandating the applicant to appear in court on the next adjourned date, October 5, 2017, to plead to the charge and in particular count-8, being a condition precedent for the court to exercise jurisdiction over the count".
As well as an order, "mandating the Attorney General of the Federation, being the agent of the complaint, to facilitate the prompt appearracne of the applicant in court on October 5 to take her plea and to defend herself over the allegations made against her in count-8 of the charge".
The ex-Minister who insisted that she was "willing to appear in court to defend herself", said her name was "surreptitiously left out of the list of defendants", despite being named as a defendant in count 8 of the charge.
"It will be in the interest of Justice to facilitate the apperance of the applicant in court in order to enable her defend herself.
"The applicant's constitutional right of fair hearing is being infringed as the trial is proceeding in her absence in spite of the fact that allegations of astronomical proportion were made against her", Diezani's lawyer, Dr. Ikpeazu argued in the application dated August 17.
The former Minister said she was "desirous of appearing in court" to defend herself.
However, the EFCC, opposed the application which it said a deliberate ploy by Alison-Madueke to frustrate the trial of her accomplices who are already defendants before the court.
EFCC told the court that the application was an attempt by the ex-Minister to escape trial in the United Kingdom where she was granted administrative bail pending conclusion of investigations into corruption allegations against her.
The anti-graft agency, via an 18 paragraphed affidavit dated September 20 and deposed to by one of its top detectives, Mr. Rufai Zaki, discribed the applicant as "a fugitive who had escaped from Nigeria to avoid investigation and possible prosecution ".
Mr. Zaki told the court that he was a member of the team that was assigned by the Commission to investigate allegation against all the defendants and the applicant.
He said: "That sometime in 2015, the Commission received an intelligence report bordering on abuse of office, criminal breach of trust, stealing, conversion and receiving stolen properties.
"That the commission further assessed the intelligence report and found that there was merit in same. Investigation was conducted in respect of this case before a charge was preferred agajnsf the defendants.
"That at the tail end of the tenure of the applicant as Minister of Petroleum Resources the commission recieved a lot of complaints and intelligence reports against the applicant alleging that she was involved in various corrupt practices, money laundering, stealing of public funds and illegal acquisition of properties within and outside Nigeria.
"That immediately the applicant got to know that investigations had commenced in respect of her various nefariously illegal financial activities while she was Minister of Petroleum Resources she absconded from Nigeria in order to escape the investigation and prosecution by the EFCC.
"That upon realising that the applicant is in the United Kingdom, we made efforts to schedule a meeting with the applicant in order to interview her in respect of her involvement in the activities leading to this charge and many other alleged financial crimes linked to her but up till now she had always avoided having any meeting with members of our team.
"That the applicant's lawyer in the United Kingdom, one John Binns of BCL Solicitors informed the members of the team of investigators headed by Abdulrasheed Bawa, when they visited the UK in March 2017 that the team would not be permitted to meet the applicant for any interview in view of the fact that she is not within the territory of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
"That while in the UK the applicant had been invited by the Metropolitan Police who are investigating her for several other financial crimes. She has been released on bail in the UK but could not leave the UK as their investigations have reached advanced stages.
"That the applicant seeing that the investigation by the Metropolitan Police had reached advanced stage and that trial in the instant charge before this honourable court is proceeding smoothly, had designed the instant application to distract and scuttle both her investigation and imminent prosecution in the UK and the trial before this Court.
"That the applicant who knows duly well that she is on bail in the UK where she is being investigated for several financial crimes and that she would not be able to leave that country in view of the ongoing investigation and imminent trial, is seeking the order of this court for the charge before this Court to be amended to include her name on the face of the charge in order for her to escape from investigation and prosecution in the UK under the guise ghat she is coming to face her trial before this Court and also to scuttle the trial before this Court".
EFCC told the court that investigation already conducted, "revealed a monumental case of fraud, abuse of office, stealing of public funds, money laundering and illegal acquisition of properties and the instant charge is just a little fraction of the fraudulent activities linked go the applicant".
EFCC, through its lawyer, Ali Yusuf, maintained that the application was a gross abuse of court process, noting that the prosecution has opened its case and called three witnesses before Alison-Madueke filed the application.
It said: "The charge could no longer be amended to include the applicant without starting the trial de-novo and recalling all the witnesses that have testified.
"That granting the application with interfere with the exercise of the prosecutorail power of the Attorney General of the Federation as well as the EFCC.
"That the applicant is a fugitive who had escaped from Nigeria to avoid investigation and possible prosecution by the EFCC.
"That the court would not make an order in favour of a party who is not within the territorial limit of the court's jurisdiction.
"It will be in the interest of Justice to refuse the applicant's application".
After he had listened to all the parties, Justice Dimgba held that it would amount to a blackmail for the EFCC to continue to retain Alison-Madueke's name in count-eight of the charge without joining her as a defendant to the substantive matter.
Consequently, he struck out the count, saying EFCC could not eat its cake and have it.
The matter was subsequently adjourned till October 5 for continuation of trial of the other defendants.