Nigeria’s Supreme Court discharges army sergeant from death penalty

The Supreme Court has discharged and acquitted a Nigerian Army sergeant, Akawu Bala, of the death sentence imposed on him by the General Court Martial of the Nigerian Army.

The respite came the way of the embattled army sergeant after spending 12 years in Kaduna prison waiting for ratification of the death sentence passed on him.

Delivering judgement in an appeal he lodged at the Supreme Court on March 16, 2017, a five-man panel of justices of the Supreme Court unanimously discharged him from the death penalty.

Sergeant Bala was accused by the Nigerian Army of shooting Isa Mohammed on December 9, 2012, when he was attached to the African Petroleum Station at Sabon Tasha, Kaduna, with an AK-47 gun.

The victim of the gunshot was said to have died on December 10, 2012, at Saint Gerald’s Catholic Hospital in Kaduna.

Following his indictment, he was put on trial for murder, which is punishable under Section 106 of the Armed Forces Act 2014, before the General Court Martial on a two-count charge and was found guilty of murder and subsequently sentenced to death by hanging.

On February 17, 2017, his appeal against the death penalty was upheld by the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division, on the ground that the charge sheet upon which he was tried and convicted was not signed by a General Commanding Officer as required by law.

Justice Obietonbara Daniel Kalo, who read the Court of Appeal’s lead judgement, declared the process of the trial and conviction of the Sergeant a nullity but refused to discharge him from the nullified trial, promoting further appeal to the Supreme Court.

His lead counsel, Mr Reuben Okpanachi Atabo, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, had argued on behalf of the convict that, having declared the trial of his client, a nullity, the Court of Appeal ought to have made a consequential order to discharge the accused person from the flawed trial.

He drew the attention of the apex court to Section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014, which prohibits the retrial of any military personnel after his trial has been voided and set aside.

The Nigerian Army, through its lead counsel, Isaac Udoka, vehemently objected to the arguments of the defence appellant and prayed that the apex court should order the retrial of the convict in the interest of justice.

In the Supreme Court judgement in the appeal marked SC/889/2017, Justice Helen Morenikeji Ogunwumiju, however, agreed with Atabo that the Court of Appeal ought to have discharged the accused person having voided his trial and declared it a nullity.

Justice Ogunwumiju subsequently invoked Section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 and set the convict free, adding that the ordinary meaning of Section 193 of the Armed Forces Act 2014 is that the accused person can no longer stand another trial.

The apex court, while rejecting the arguments of the Army’s lawyer, thereafter ordered the immediate release of the convict from Kaduna prison, where he had been on remand since 2012.

Apart from Justice Ogunwumiju, the other justices on the panel were Uwani Musa Abba Aji, Chidiebere Nwaoma Uwa, Stephen Jonah Ada and Abubakar Sadiq Umar.

Sergeant Bala had in his defence claimed that he fired a gunshot at Isa Mohammed and one other person when they walked towards him in the dark at the African Petroleum Station and his order to them to go back was rebuffed, prompting him to fire at them before they could capture him.

The convict claimed that he fired the gun at the two men because it was during the peak of Boko Haram activity in Kaduna.

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