The prosecution of 60 soldiers accused of mutiny began yesterday, as they appeared before a general court-martial sitting at the Army Headquarters Garrison, Mogadishu Cantonment, Abuja.
However, 59 of the accused soldiers were at the trial; the remaining one was said to be medically unfit for the trial yet.
All the 59 soldiers pleaded not guilty to the two-count charges bordering on and conspiracy to commit mutiny.
In a matter brought by the Nigerian Army against Cpl Andrew Ogolekwu and 59 others, the prosecution led by Capt J. E. Nwosu, in an oral application to the court, said that it was amending the charge sheet to strike out Lance Cpl Anthony Simeon as he was medically unfit to take his plea as required by law.
The prosecution said it was relying on Section 153 of the Criminal Code which required the accused to be in court to take plea personally and not through his counsel, and also taking solace also on rule 82, rules of procedure, to strike out Simeon’s name.
This did not go down well as the defence counsel led by Maj Oluwafemi Oyebanji, retd, who held brief for Femi Falana, SAN, lawyer to the 60 accused soldiers, objected on the grounds that the accused were not standing trial individually but as a group.
However, it was upheld by the court presided by the president, Brig-Gen. M S Yusuf and Lt-Col Ukpe Ukpe, who, having listened to the application, said the charges should be amended to exclude Lance Cpl Anthony Simeon.
He said the prosecution was right to strike out any accused person and represent the person for trial when it chooses to do so.
In view of this, the defence counsel prayed the court to stand down the matter for 45 to 60 minutes to enable it prepare as the new charge sheet was now strange to it, a request the court readily granted.
Upon resumption, the medical representative of Defence Headquarters Medical Centre announced that Cpl Andrew Ogolekwu and 58 others were fit to stand trial, and the prosecution, in a preliminary statement, declared that it was ready to arraign the accused and open its case today (yesterday).
It also asserted that, by the end of the trial, the court would be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the offences they are accused of, a claim Femi Falana, counsel to the accused soldiers, dismissed.
Reading out their charge of conspiracy to commit mutiny, the judge advocate said that the accused soldiers, at Muleyi Primary School, Borno State, on August 4 conspired together to commit mutiny against the authority of the Nigerian Army 7 Division, Maiduguri.
On the second charge of mutiny, he said at the same primary school and on the same date, the soldiers refused an order from the commanding officer, 111 Special Forces Battalion, SFB, to go on an operation in Delwa in a bid to capture Damboa in Borno State.
Announcing to the court that it had compelling evidence to this effect, the prosecution invited its witness and commanding officer of the accused soldiers, Lt-Col Timothy Opurum, who testified that the soldiers committed the said offences.
In his testimony, Lt-Col Opurum identified the accused as soldiers in his battalion who rebelled against his orders and conspired together not to go to battle.
He said that on the said date, at the said primary school they were using as their camp, he had addressed the soldiers on the task from the 7 Division to advance and fend off enemies along the routes to enable the 251 and 254 Battalions pass through there for their operations to capture Damboa .
However, after the briefing for the task slated for 0500 hours, by 0445 hours, the soldiers were still hesitant to partake in the operation.
He told the court that he gave an order five minutes to the commencement of operation for the soldiers to enter the five Hilux vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carrier, APC, to embark on the task but that while some obeyed, others, together with all the drivers, refused. Consequently, he ordered the four officers under him to drive the vehicles while he drove one and left for the operations with five officers and 29 soldiers, while 68 of the soldiers refused to embark on the operation.
He said that 47 of them, however, joined the reinforcement which he requested for from 7 Division headquarters, after the initial party faced superior firepower and were out-numbered by insurgents at Delva, where they lost some of their equipment, but no soldier was lost.
The commanding officer told the court that 13 of the soldiers who refused to embark on the operation were later arrested by Military Police, while eight of them are presently at large.
Commencing his defence, Femi Falana told the court that there was no atom of evidence to back the prosecution’s claim.
He also remarked that this was the largest number of soldiers ever tried in Nigeria for mutiny, and that by the time he and his team were through, they would convince the court-martial of the soldiers’ innocence.
He applied to the court for the records of the ammunition used in the said operations, which the court said would be looked into, and the matter was adjourned to today.