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Francis Atuche Walk To Prison

by Emmanuel Ogundele
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Francis Atuche’s trial actually began on July 6, 2011 after the judge dismissed the defence lawyer’s application for a stay of proceedings.

 A mild drama ensued at the home of the Atuches in Ikoyi, Lagos, on the evening of May 3, 2011, as nearly a dozen operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) stormed the palatial home of the former Managing Director, Bank PHB, to arrest him and his wife, Elizabeth.

 Though they were told the couple had travelled out of the country, however, the officers, relying on their intelligence, thought otherwise.

 After forcing their way into the house to conduct a search, they found Mrs Atuche, though her husband had bolted.

The EFCC declared Mr Atuche wanted over money laundering allegations amounting to ₦8.6 billion, he was also accused of using his wife’s company to steal depositors’ funds totalling over ₦100 million.

 The banker turned himself in two days later.

 On May 17, 2011, the EFCC arraigned Mr Atuche on two separate charges before Justice Adeniyi Onigbanjo of the Ikeja Division of the Lagos State High Court.

 In the first charge, Mr Atuche allegedly conspired with Funmi Ademosu to steal N4.2 billion which were part of the proceeds from the sale of 241,579,284 units of Afribank shares and joint property of Caverton Helicopters Ltd and Bank PHB.

In the second charge, Mr Atuche allegedly conspired with Lekan Kasali to steal N7.2 billion which they fraudulently described as loans to Cogipar Nigeria Limited.

 The EFCC said all the offences were committed between April and September 2008.

 On the same day, Elizabeth Atuche was arraigned before another judge, Lateefah Okunnu, on a three-count charge of conspiracy and stealing. She was accused of fraud totalling N11.4 billion “being property of Bank PHB Plc by fraudulently converting the proceeds of several illegal loans for the acquisition of 337,500, 000 units of Bank PHB Plc shares on behalf of Ghazali Yakubu Investment Ltd. and AFCO Associates Limited.”

 In June 2011, the EFCC amended the charges against the Atuches. The couple were re-arraigned before Mrs Okunnu on a 27-count charge bothering on conspiracy to commit felony and stealing of N25.7 billion belonging to the bank.

 Mr Atuche’s trial before Justice Okunnu began on July 6, 2011, after the judge dismissed the defence lawyer’s application for a stay of proceedings.

 In March 2012, Mr Atuche’s lawyers filed an application seeking to stop the EFCC from presenting additional evidence in the trial. The judge dismissed the application.

 On July 9, 2012, Justice Onigbanjo, who is also hearing one of Mr Atuche’s cases, granted the bank chief permission to travel to the United Kingdom for medical treatment, between July 17 and September 7, 2012.

 When trial resumed in September, the EFCC presented documents that appeared to show Mr Atuche releasing N35 million and N10 million as tithes to St. Monica Catholic Church, Ibusa, and St. Augustine Catholic Church, both in the bank chief’s native Delta State. The trial was, however, stalled for weeks after Bolaji Ogunsola, the witness who allegedly made the claim, said he received death threats from people in Delta State.

 After calling 12 witnesses to give oral evidence and subpoenaing six others to tender documents, the prosecution closed its case on March 4, 2013.

 Atuches got a temporary relief in June 2015 after the high court, in response to the decision of the court of appeal that the charges are capital market issues, dismissed the charges against the defendants for lack of jurisdiction. The court also directed that the case be reassigned to a different judge.

 The EFCC swiftly appealed the decision, so Atuches victory was, however, short-lived.

 In 2017, the apex court held that the court of appeal failed to give reasons why the case should be reassigned to a new judge.

 In her 12-hour- judgements, Mrs Okunnu upheld the arguments of Mr Pinheiro, the EFCC counsel, that the N25.7 billion was stolen, not loaned, as argued by Mr Atuche. Mr Atuche’s wife, however, was discharged and acquitted. In pleading for leniency, Mr Atuche said that as a professional banker and chartered accountant, he did not want to become a convict.

 The judge sentenced Messrs Atuche and Anyanwu to six years in prison each.

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