They had terrifying names like “General Cobra Red”, “Bad Blood DeJangle” and “Bullet Vest” and committed horrific crimes during the early days of Liberia’s civil war. In a milestone ruling Thursday, a judge in Philadelphia ordered their leader, Mohammed Jabbateh, AKA “Jungle Jabbah”, to spend 30 years in a US prison for those crimes.
Mr. Jabbateh, now 51, has become the first Liberian to be tried and convicted for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war. Previous president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rejected the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report that more than 90 combatants be tried.
In this case Mr. Jabbateh was prosecuted for immigration fraud – lying to US immigration officials when he applied for asylum here in 1998 among thousands of other refugees fleeing the war. He could have received as little as time served but the judge gave him the maximum sentence in recognition of the egregious nature of the crimes.
“Today’s verdict means victory for Liberia, not only for the victims,” said Hassan Bility, a long time justice campaigner whose Global Justice Research Project together with Civitas Maxima helped prosecutors gather evidence for the trial.
“It means the time is gone when people hid themselves from justice; the time is gone when people discouraged victims and witnesses from stepping forward and telling their stories.”
It is the longest sentence ever given in a US court for criminal immigration fraud. Judge Paul S. Diamond, said Mr. Jabbateh’s crimes including systemic rape, murder, slavery, torture, use of child soliders, genocide and cannibalism were so extreme “it was difficult to believe anyone could be capable of committing those acts.”
In recognition of those crimes the judge imposed the maximum crime possible under the law. He stressed that he was giving Mr. Jabbateh the maximum not because of his war crimes but because in lying about them to US immigration officials he violated US law in the most extreme way possible.
In his statement US Assistant District Attorney Nelson Thayer urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence saying that Mr. Jabbateh had entered the country as a “wolf” clothed in the sheep’s clothing of refugee. He said a strong sentence was needed to show Americans and the Liberian diaspora that this is a country of laws and those who violate them will be prosecuted.
“If he does not deserve the maximum,” Thayer asked “Who does?” In an interview after the sentence hearing Thayer paid credit to the 17 Liberian witnesses who had come from Liberia to the court to testify against Jabbateh. “They are real heroes,” he said.
“We both immediately thought of the victims,” said Mr. Thayer. “They can go to sleep tonight knowing that Mohammed Jabbateh will not be coming back to Liberia. In all likelihood he will die in this country and he will not be running for office. He will not be coming back to be embraced by his supporters. He will die in a federal prison.”
Outside the court, Mr. Jabbateh’s family and friends were angry. His 19-year-old son, who a family friend said was planning to enlist in the US army in two months, supported Mr. Jabbateh’s sister who was crying. They refused to talk to the media.
A supporter, Alphonso Seke-Horton, told reporters the sentence was unfair and a political act designed to frame Mr. Jabbateh. He said Mr. Jabbateh was only acting in defense of his people when he commited the acts.
Mr. Jabbateh’s lawyer Greg Pagano said Jabbateh would appeal the decision.
Mr Jabbateh was found guilty on four-counts of U.S. immigration fraud and perjury charges – all linked to atrocities he committed nearly three decades ago in Liberia when he was commander of the Zebra Battalion in the militia known as ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy), in Western Liberia operating from 1990-1994.
ULIMO was one of the many warring factions that fought Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) during Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1996). In the areas that lived under Mr. Jabbah’s terror there was joy at the outcome.
“Ye, he is supposed to go to jail. 30 years is even small,” said John Wanner, 49. “Me I see Jungle Jabbah, I was not a small boy at that time. Here in Lofa Bridge when they kill somebody he takes of their heart to cook pepper soup and eat it.”
“Whenever soldiers under his commend complain of hunger he will ask for all the prisoners to get out,” said Town Chief Momoh FenSeh, 60. “He like the fair skin people. Whether you are a woman or man as long as your skin is fair he referred to you is hog (pig) meat. We are satisfying with that 30 years, for somebody to kill people like chicken and be walking free it is not fine.”
The response was the same in the Gbarpolu area where a bridge is still known as “Jungle Jabbah” bridge after Mr. Jabbateh forced the local community to build the bridge to allow him to transport goods stolen from a logging company and then tortured the local community after the bridge collapsed.
“Let him be there. Let them put him in jail. Jungle Jabbah did a lot of things here. Let him be in jail,” said Joseph Ballah, 78, a resident of Gbarqueta, in the county of Gbarpolu.
“He ran away from here to America, taking himself to be a good person. Let him bear the penalty.”
“When they said ‘Jungle Jabbah [is] coming’, nobody would remain in this town,” said George Massaquoi, now 51. “Everybody used to jump in the bush. I was afraid to even lay eyes on him. I really feel happy because those are the people who tortured our people here.”
In order to prove that Mr. Jabbateh provided false information to U.S. immigration authorities and procured asylum in the United States by fraud, the prosecution first had to establish that he was a high-ranking rebel commander during the first Liberian civil war and committed criminal actions while in that position.
The U.S. District Attorney’s office flew in 17 victims from Liberia to testify. During the three-week trial, witnesses recounted brutalities committed at the hands of Mr. Jabbateh and his rebels, including cannibalism, mutilations, rapes and slave labor in and around Liberia’s diamond-rich western region, where they said that Jabbateh brutalized villagers while he was building an empire with looted diamonds and other natural resources.
Jury members wept as an elderly widow of a village chief recalled how Mr. Jabbateh had ordered her husband be murdered by having his heart cut out.
“They brought his heart to me to cook,” she told the visibly shocked jurors. “Make yourself strong ma,” she remembered a young rebel saying as he urged her to build a fire. “If you don’t, he’ll kill us both.”
Another juror told how Mr. Jabbateh’s rebels had lined up all the men in the village and identified two men they said were Krahn (Jabbah’s rival ethnic tribe). “They cut off their ears and then ordered us to clap,” recalled the witness.
Mr. Jabbah, now 51, and father of 10, was operating a shipping outlet in Southwest Philadelphia when he was picked up by U.S. Marshals on April 23, 2016 and charged with lying about his brutal past, when he sought asylum in the U.S. in 1998.
Mr. Jabateh’s trial is the first case in a new legal push for the prosecution of Liberians who are known to have committed war crimes during the country’s plunge into bloody civil conflicts that intermittently ran for nearly 20 years.
The push has been led by the Global Justice and Research Project in collaboration with the international lawyers and investigators of Switzerland-based Civitas Maxima. The campaign is running under the banner #Quest4Liberia. The trials of Thomas Woewiyu, Charles Taylor’s Defense Minister in Philadelphia and Agnes Taylor, Charles Taylor’s ex-wife in the UK will begin later this year. Two other combatants are facing trial in Belgium and Switzerland.
Pressure is mounting on President George Weah to hold a war crimes court. In a big change in their position the Liberian Council of Churches recently called on the president to hold a trial. In a visit to Liberia in March, UN Deputy General Amina Mohammed also called on the president to hold a trial.
So far President Weah, who said a trial was necessary in 2004, has refused to discuss a trial since he became president in January. When asked about it by the BBC’s reporter in Liberia, Mr. Weah ignored the question and made unsubstantiated accusations about the reporter’s bias against him. The reporter has since fled the country in fear of retaliation from Mr. Weah’s supporters. Mr. Weah has appointed several people accused of war crimes to his government.
But speaking in Philadelphia on Monday, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, Weah’s Information Minister, said the government is working on a plan that “takes into account the country’s fragility, reconciliation and possible prosecution while maintaining peace.”
The pressure will only intensify as trials continue.
“This sentence should come as a wake-up call for the Liberian government,” said Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima. “Victims will be relentless in their quest for justice. They want to be heard and they will be heard. The George Weah administration should listen to them now, take steps towards establishing war crimes courts in Liberia.”
Mr. Woewiyu’s trial will begin in Philadelphia on June 11.
This story was a collaboration between Front Page Africa and New Narratives. Jackson Kanneh reported from Philadelphia. Tecee Boley was in Lofa Bridge, Liberia and James Harding Giahyue was at “Jungle Jabbah” Bridge in Gbarpolu, Liberia.