The Supreme Court has granted the immediate past Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD), Dr Stephen Kwabena Opuni, access to his bank accounts which were frozen by the Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO).
In a ruling yesterday, a five -member panel of the court unanimously quashed a High Court’s decision that gave EOCO the legal backing to freeze all the money in Dr Opuni’s two bank accounts.
According to the apex court, under the law, EOCO had the power to freeze only GH¢ 25,000 which Dr Opuni was alleged to have received as a bribe from a businessman, Seidu Agongo, during his tenure as COCOBOD CEO.
Dr Opuni and Agongo, the CEO of Agricult Ghana Limited, are currently being tried at the Accra High Court for allegedly committing various illegalities in a series of fertiliser deals that caused financial loss of GH¢271.3m to the state and led to the distribution of substandard fertilisers to cocoa farmers.
The offence of Dr Opuni allegedly receiving a bribe of GH¢ 25,000 from Agongo is part of the 27 offences that the two accused have been charged with at the High Court.
Per the Supreme Court’s ruling, EOCO can only freeze the bank account that contains the GH¢25,000 since it was the only money that was alleged to be proceeds of the alleged crime.
“Only GH¢25,000 is said to be tainted by crime. The order of the High Court is quashed and the remaining amount is hereby defrozen. The amount of GH¢ 25,000 in the Ecobank account is to remain frozen,’’ the apex court ruled.
The five -member panel was presided over by Mr Justice Jones Dotse with Mrs Justice Vida Akoto Bamfo, Mr Justice Anthony A. Benin, Mr Justice Yaw Appau and Mr Justice Gabriel Pwamang as the other members.
Read also: Opuni battles EOCO for his bank accounts
Arguments by lawyers
The decision by the apex court followed a certiorari application filed by Dr Opuni’s lawyers after their attempts to have the High Court allow Dr Opuni access to the accounts failed.
Lawyer for the former COCOBOD boss, Mr Samuel Cudjoe, argued that the High Court acted in excess of its jurisdiction by allowing EOCO to freeze the two accounts.
According to him, per the law, EOCO could only freeze the GH¢ 25,000 since it was the money alleged to have been tainted by crime.
The Counsel for EOCO, Mrs Jacklyn Avotri, in her response, argued that EOCO had the legal right to freeze all the money in Dr Opuni’s accounts.
She argued that EOCO followed the right procedure as stipulated in the Economic and Organised Crime Act, 2010 (ACT 804) and, therefore, the High Court did not exceed its jurisdiction by allowing the freezing of the accounts.
She further submitted that under the law, Dr Opuni could apply for money from the accounts that had been frozen to meet any expenditure.
EOCO’s abuse of power
But the arguments by Mrs Avotri failed to convince the court as the five judges schooled her and reminded her that per the law and past decisions of the court, EOCO could only freeze money directly alleged to have been the proceeds of crimes.
Mr Justice Dotse told counsel not to advance such arguments by supporting EOCO in abusing its powers.
“Today, you are at EOCO but tomorrow, you may not be there and you will fall victim of such abuse. If we proceed on this trajectory, nobody will be free in this country.
“There is the need to curb organised crime but state forces must be controlled. Let us chart a path where the laws of Ghana are not used arbitrarily,” he told counsel.
Mrs Avotri tried to explain that EOCO needed to freeze the accounts to help the state recover any money in the event Dr Opuni was convicted by the High Court.
That argument received further bashing from the court with Mr Justice Benin and Mr Justice Pwamang reminding counsel that under the constitution, Dr Opuni was innocent until proven guilty.
“He is innocent until proven guilty as stated in the Constitution,” Mr Justice Pwamang stated.
“The applicant (Opuni) is facing criminal prosecution, what makes you think at the trial, he will be ordered to pay any money,” Mr Justice Benin asked counsel.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Mrs Justice Bamfo and Mr Justice Appau, who told EOCO to stay within the limits stipulated by the law.
After the numerous bashing and criticisms, Mrs Avotri prayed the court to only freeze the GH¢25,000 and allow Dr Opuni to have access to the rest of the money.
Battle over accounts
EOCO froze the Ecobank and Standard Chartered bank accounts of Dr Opuni in February 2017 during investigations into the alleged fertiliser scandal at COCOBOD that led to the court case at the High Court.
The Ecobank account is said to be the one that contains the GH¢ 25,000 bribe that the embattled former COCOBOD boss allegedly received from Agongo.
After months of having his bank accounts under the control of EOCO, Dr Opuni’s lawyers obtained a High Court order on April 23, 2018 for the accounts to be defrozen.
But the victory was short-lived, as EOCO filed an ex parte motion the following day, April 24, 2018, and obtained another order from the same court for the accounts to be frozen again.
Dr Opuni’s lawyers replied by appealing to the same High Court, presided over by Mrs Justice Georgina Mensah-Dasta, to set aside her orders for their client’s bank accounts to be frozen.
In a ruling on May 21, 2018, Mrs Justice Mensah -Datsa, however, dismissed the appeal and allowed the frozen order to stand.
Dr Opuni’s legal team then marched to the Supreme Court with a certiorari application, praying the apex court to quash the High Court’s order on April 24, 2018 and the ruling on May 21, 2018.