The Executive Director, Constitutional Watch, Ahams Njoku has described the judgment of a Federal High Court, Benin that imposed a fine of N3 million on Michael Igbinedion on the charge of the breach of the Money Laundering Act, as “not only fair but according to the law”.
Njoku, who is also a Lagos lawyer in a statement, noted that “the judgment of the court presided over by Hon. Justice Abubakar Liman appears to have generated some concern from members of the public especially those who are not lawyers.
“They seem to be at a loss why the money that was said to be laundered stood above the fine to be paid by Mr. Igbinedion. The first thing to note is that the offence appears to be a strict liability one.”
Referring to the extant law, Njoku remarked that, “Mr. Igbinedion was said to have accepted cash payments of the sums of ten million three hundred and nine thousand naira and also twenty one million naira contrary to the Money Laundering Act (Section 15(1) 2004) which provides that “No person or body corporate shall, except in a transaction through a financial institution, make or accept cash payment of a sum exceeding – (a) N500,000 or its equivalent, in the case of an individual”.
“So even if the convicted person used the money judiciously he is still liable. The next issue to consider is the sentencing under the Money Laundering Act (Section 15(2) 2004 thereof).
It provides, “A person who commits an offence under sub-section (1) of this section shall be liable on conviction – (b) in the case of an offence under paragraph (d) – (f) where the offender (1) is an individual, to a fine of not less than N250,000 or more than N1,000,000 or a term of imprisonment of not less than 2 years or more than 3 years or to both fine and imprisonment”.
In other words, the judge has the discretion to either sentence the person to an option of fine or he can sentence the person the prison.
He can also fine the person and at the same time send him to prison. But the thing to note is that the judge in exercising this discretion is guided by the law and judicial precedent.”
Njoku, a prolific author of legal books added that, “further by virtue of Section 36(12) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a court can only impose a sentence as prescribed by the law.
It provides “Subject as otherwise provided by this constitution, a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefore is prescribed in a written law; and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the national Assembly or a Law of a State, any subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law”.
“Any attempt by the judge in this case to have imposed any other sentence above the three million naira fine which is the maxim would not only be ultra vires but indeed unconstitutional.”
He finally submitted that,” one may suggest that the sentencing in this case was not only fair but according to the law. Any thing to the contrary would have been based on the whims and caprice of the presiding judge and the certainty of the law would have been violated. Then the court would cease to be a court of law but a court of public sentiment”.