Some military officers convicted and under various categories of punishment by various courts-martial have appealed to the Presidential Investigation Panel to Review Compliance of the Armed Forces with Human Rights Obligations and Rules of Engagement to hear their complaints against the Nigerian Army.
Among the soldiers is a former Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force, Enitan Ransome-Kuti, who was demoted from the rank of Brigadier General to Colonel.
Others include Lt. Col. A. O. Ojo, who was dismissed by the Nigerian Army for alleged negligence of military duties; and 54 soldiers, who claimed to have been illegally tried and convicted by the court-martial for demanding weapons for counter-insurgency operations in the North-East geopolitical zone.
The rest are Lance Corporals Bankole Taiwo, Ayodele Olawale and Isiah Olofu as well as Private Adebayo Gbenga, who are collectively seeking the review of their convictions.
The Justice Biobele Georgewill-led seven-man panel had, at its inaugural sitting on Monday, expressed doubts on its jurisdiction to entertain the complaints of the soldiers bordering on decisions of a military tribunal with pending appeals against the said decisions at the Court of Appeal.
But with the soldiers’ lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), insisting that the panel had jurisdiction to hear the complaints, the panel, on Monday, directed parties to the complaints to file written addresses on the issue.
Arguing on behalf of his clients on Tuesday, Falana conceded that his clients had pending appeals before the Court of Appeal challenging their convictions and the sentences passed on them by the courts martial.
He maintained, however, that the pending appeals had not robbed the panel of the jurisdiction to hear his clients’ petitions which he said were only urging the panel to recommend to President Muhammadu Buhari to grant them pardon.
He said his clients were not requesting the panel to sit as an appeal court on the decision of the courts-martial but was only seeking to explore the platform provided by the panel to secure presidential pardon.
He added that Section 198 of the Armed Forces as well as Section 175 of the constitution empower the President to grant pardon to any convicted person in Nigeria without condition and regardless of whether or not the convicts had pending appeals.
Falana added, “We concede the fact that all the petitioners have pending appeals challenging their convictions and sentence passed on them by some courts-martial. That appeal was brought pursuant to Section 240 of the constitution.
“No where is it stated in the terms of reference of the panel that it shall not look at cases in court.
“What we have before this honourable panel is a prayer that this panel should recommend to the President to grant pardon to the petitioners.
“In the cases pending before the Court of Appeal, their prayer is for the conviction to be set aside but, here, we are asking for pardon.”
He maintained that the basis for his clients’ request for pardon was not related to the matter before the Court of Appeal but was based on facts that came up after they (the clients) had been tried and convicted.
He said the request for pardon followed the emergence of facts about how funds earmarked for purchase of arms to prosecute the counter-insurgency war in the North-East were diverted.
“After the trial, facts emerged that huge funds earmarked for the purchase of weapons were diverted.
“The matter before you is not before the Court of Appeal. This matter goes to the root of violation of human rights in the military,” he stated.
But the Nigerian Army’s lawyer, Mr. Biola Oyebanji, who also appeared alongside Brig.Gen. D. O. Idada-Ikponmen (retd.), urged the panel to refuse to hear the soldiers’ complaints.
Oyebanji argued that the “limited” scope of the panel’s terms of reference did not give room for entertaining such complaints.
He added that the quest for pardon by the complainants was an afterthought as such was not prayed for in the soldiers’ petitions submitted to the panel.
The counsel said, “The prayer in the memoranda does not have anything on pardon. To draw in pardon by inference is a belated attempt by the petitioners. It is an afterthought.
“They do not need the setting up of this panel to exercise their right.
“Having conceded that they have exploited other means to entertain their case, it has become duplicitous to burden this panel with the same application.”
When confronted with a prayer in one of the petitions requesting the panel to recommend to the President about the complainants’ pardon, Oyebanji agreed that the issue was not an afterthought.
In his reply on points of law, Falana said the complaints by his clients before the panel was for “reinforcement” of his clients’ pleas to the President for pardon.
The Justice Georgewill-led panel fixed ruling for Wednesday.
The panel said, with agreement of parties, that other petitions by Falana, including the one that had to do with the alleged violation of human rights by the military justice system, would be heard in Maiduguri, Borno State, where the panel’s North-East sitting is to take place.