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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Nigerian judge Okechukwu Okeke has retired from his Lagos court rather than appear for the trial, scheduled in Lagos on April 30, of the Russian crew of the security tender, Myre Seadiver. Sources in Lagos told Fairplay the trial has been postponed for a second time on account of the judge’s absence. Okeke presided at the February 18 hearing at which the 15-man crew was formally charged, four months after they had been arrested and imprisoned. He released the crew from prison and remanded them to the Russian Embassy, setting April 10 for trial on the charges of arms smuggling and illegal entry to the country. When the judge did not appear on April 10, lawyers at court said they were unable to contact Okeke for an explanation. Yesterday the lawyers were told the judge had retired from the case.

The story of the Myre Seadiver’s arrest by the Nigerian Navy can be read here. Moran Security, which owns and operates the Myre Seadiver and is a Moscow-based vessel protection group under contract for tanker security in the Gulf of Guinea, says the arms and illegal entry charges were trumped up. Documents provided by Moran Security show the vessel master, Andrei Zhelayzkov, had submitted full details of the arms on board before entering Lagos port on September 19, and that the vessel agent, Blueseas Maritime Services Nigeria Ltd., had confirmed port authority and Navy permission. The agent is refusing to comment on the evidence or the court proceedings. Nigerian Navy representatives are also not commenting.

Okeke has been the subject of what are known in Nigeria as controversial allegations. In April he was accused of trying to accelerate one of his pending cases for the benefit of the accused.

In fact, Okeke’s retirement had been officially scheduled for May 18, and the date was known before the two Russian trial dates were fixed. Sources in Lagos say doubts about the charge sheet have surfaced at the Nigerian Ministry of Justice and at the Lagos prosecutor’s office. Several of the crew accused of illegal entry are likely to have that charge dropped, a prosecutor said in court this week, because they had entered Nigeria by plane carrying just issued visas from the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow. They were relieving crew who were on board the Myre Seadiver, when the vessel had first anchored at Lagos port in September, a month before the Navy intervened.

That was on October 20. No evidence and no witnesses have been presented in court since then. Lagos sources believe the prosecutors and their superiors need the extra time to negotiate with the Navy on how to dispose of the case without risking an acquittal, or a retraction and apology in favour of the crew. A new trial date has now been fixed for 13 May. The new judge appointed for the case is James Tsoho.

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