On Wednesday, Inibehe Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, was sentenced to one month in prison by Justice Ekaette Obot, the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, for defending Savior Imukudo, a Premium Times reporter.
The judge gave the order after Effiong in the reporter’s defence said it was fitting for members of the public to witness the proceeding.
Obot said the lawyer would use the correctional facility to purge himself of actions that could bring the court into disrepute.
Meanwhile, the face-off between the two did not begin today. On July 2, Obot threatened to jail Effiong for alleging prejudice and likelihood of bias in the handling of a matter involving Leo Ekpeyong, his client. She told him to behave himself or risk being sent to prison.
The case in question was between Udom Emmanuel, the Akwa Ibom State Governor, and Effiong’s client. Obot had found the defendant guilty of libel, a judgment in favour of Emmanuel.
Following the ruling, Effiong had filed a motion for the judgment to be set aside, insisting that his client was not given a fair hearing, and the prayer was granted by the court. The lawyer then said his client no longer had confidence in the judge, citing prejudice and the likelihood of bias as his reasons.
“We are saying because your lordship has already found the defendant liable in this matter, it is only just and fair that the matter be reassigned to another judge to be heard de novo, that is the practice my lord,” the PUNCH quoted him to have said.
“For example, if the court of appeal sets aside a judgement and sends back the case to be tried before the lower court, it usually goes with a consequential order that a new judge handle the matter, so if the defendant has said that he doesn’t have confidence in the honourable chief judge of the state to hear his case, it’s only fair that the matter be reassigned to preserve the dignity, impartiality and honour of the court.
“All we are saying is that we do not have confidence in my lord to determine my matter.”
Effiong’s comments infuriated the judge, who rebuked the lawyer in her reaction. “You cannot say that before me. You can’t talk to your senior like that. I don’t know when this man learnt law,” she said.
“You are trying to intimidate your senior. Did you see the type of counter you filed over miscellaneous matters I overlooked?
“I still set aside that judgement, only for you to capitalise on it and you want to play on the intelligence of the court? Do not allow me to send you to prison!”
The Judge proceeded with the hearing and later adjourned the case until July 27. After the adjournment, Effiong spoke to the press.
“We know that by law, a court should not address a counsel in that manner. The seeming hostility that characterised the proceedings to set aside the default judgement is discouraging,” he said.
“We are also asking that my lord reassign this matter because my lord has already delivered a judgement though in default against Mr Ekpenyong, where he asked him to pay Governor Udom Emmanuel a sum of N1.5 billion, and I came before this court asking that that judgement be set aside, having been delivered in error and in flagrant violation of the right of my client to fair hearing because on the date that judgement was given, no hearing notice was issued and the registrar gave that date off record.
“The court agreed with us that the right of our client was violated and set the case aside.”
Effiong’s tweets after he was sent to prison on Wednesday suggest that the face-off between the two had been sustained.
“The chief judge of Akwa Ibom ordered a Premium times reporter to leave the court. I said ‘my lord, we were thinking that since the proceeding is public, it is fitting that members of the public should be allowed to observe the proceeding,’” he said.
“I will be going to the Uyo Correctional Centre now. I have done nothing wrong. I was also not given to say anything before the conviction. Two lawyers in court appealed to the hon. chief judge, but my lord insisted I must be jailed.
“Unknown to me, my lord was writing a committal order to send me to Uyo prison. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to say anything. My lord just ordered me to remove my wig and gown, that I was going to prison.
“Meanwhile, we have a pending motion for my lord to disqualify and recuse himself from the case on grounds of bias or likelihood of bias. Justice will vindicate the just.”
FIJ learned that Effiong was taken to the Uyo Correctional Centre but was rejected due to Covid-19 regulations. He said he was being taken back to the judge to determine the next line of action.