Judge frowns upon magistrate’s use of Google for evidence in criminal case of cybercrime kingpin

An acting judge frowned upon a magistrate who used Google before granting bail to alleged cybercrime kingpin, James Junior Aliyu. Picture: File

An acting judge frowned upon a magistrate who used Google before granting bail to alleged cybercrime kingpin, James Junior Aliyu. Picture: File

Published Jul 10, 2023


The fact that a magistrate, who granted bail to alleged cybercrime kingpin, James Junior Aliyu, used Google for legal knowledge on some aspects of the case, had an acting judge frowning.

“The learned magistrate, unfortunately, acted as a witness in the case, by searching, by his own admission during his judgment, on Google for evidence of an extradition treaty between the US and Nigeria,” the acting judge said.

His remarks were made after the National Prosecuting Authority had appealed against the fact that Aliyu was granted bail.

Acting Judge Peet Johnson, who heard the appeal in the Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg, remarked about the magistrate’s Google antics: “It is irregular for a court to search for evidence on Google, which had not been proved to be a reliable source of information, to contradict the arguments of one party or the other.”

It was also irregular for the magistrate to take cognisance of what he had uncovered on Google, he said. It did not bode well for the independence, and impartiality of the judiciary.

Judge Johnson questioned how the magistrate had come to the conclusion that Aliyu should be freed on bail.

Judge Johnson overturned the bail decision, which means Aliyu will remain behind bars.

He was arrested for fraud and money laundering in Sandton.

The prosecution told the court that they had received extradition documents from the US. Aliyu, a Nigerian citizen, had wanted bail, pending his extradition inquiry to the US.

It was with regard to this aspect that the magistrate – armed with his Google knowledge regarding an extradition treaty between the US and Nigeria – had questioned the lawyers involved during legal arguments.

Aliyu, also known as “Old Soldier” and “Ghost”, appeared in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court subsequent to his arrest under the Extradition Treaty between South Africa and the US.

He is due to stand trial there on various charges, among them “wire fraud” and money laundering.

Aliyu had told the magistrate that he had a valid defence and would plead not guilty. He had said he had been “framed”.

Judge Johnson said it was clear that Aliyu placed all the blame on others and attempted to exonerate himself.

“The learned magistrate ignored these facts and merely concluded that the respondent (Aliyu) denied the offences and has a valid defence.”

An official of the US Secret Service and an SAPS official had given statements disputing his allegations, but the magistrate had ignored the evidence and decided to accept the version of Aliyu, the judge said.

Judge Johnson said a presiding officer could not selectively decide what evidence he preferred to take cognisance of in a bail application. All the evidence needed to be considered.

“The magistrate also did not investigate why the respondent, who is a Nigerian citizen, goes by different aliases. He gave no consideration to the strength of the State’s case, as put forward by the witnesses, and merely echoed the respondent’s allegation that ‘he will plead not guilty and has a strong defence’.

The investigating officer had testified that Aliyu was a member of a movement called “Black X” which was involved in internet scams and wire fraud internationally. It had members across the world, yet the magistrate had ignored that.

“Evidence that the respondent obtained a South African ID fraudulently, under the name William Khosi Mtsweli, found in his possession and was indicative of a warning sign that he is a flight risk, was also ignored by the court,” the judge said.

When the respondent’s partner had been called, her evidence had sounded like an “extract from a James Bond movie”, Judge Johnson said.

She had testified about hidden video cameras, video footage and masked faces. “One cannot help but see a picture emerge where everyone, even the police, was out to get the respondent and frame him.”

When she had been confronted with video evidence, meant to support her evidence, she had been unsure of the date of the footage, and the identities of the persons who appeared in the video.

“I am satisfied that the learned magistrate misdirected himself and that his decision to grant the respondent bail was wrong,” Judge Johnson said.

Pretoria News