Philadelphia, PA - A U.S. jury has convicted ex-Liberian warlord Mohammed Jabateh also known as Gen. Jungle Jabbah on all four federal immigration fraud and perjury charges finding he lied when he claimed on asylum applications that he had not committed war crimes.
Report by Jackson Kanneh in Philadelphia and James Harding Gaihyue in Monrovia
“Of course we respect the jury decision. They worked hard. We disagree with the decision and we are disappointed” - Gregory Pagano, Gregory Pagano
The jury reached its unanimous decision after about 5 hours deliberation. Jabateh was returned to jail to await sentencing which could happen months from now. He faces up to 33 years in prison.
Jabateh has 14 days to appeal the decision.
Jabateh’s legal counsel Gregory Pagano said he respected the jury’s unanimous verdict, but rejects the decision.
“Of course we respect the jury decision. They worked hard. We disagree with the decision and we are disappointed,” said Pagano.
He said it was likely they would appeal.
Pagano was asked why he made the decision not to put his Liberia-based witnesses on the stand to testify via live satellite video for Jabateh, a move legal witnesses said could have hurt his client.
He simply replied: “It was a strategic legal decision and I stand by it and I think it was the right decision.”
U.S. attorney Linwood C. Wright said his team was pleased with the verdict, calling it a “rare team effort."
"We hope there’s a measure of justice not only for violation of our law but also in Liberia for those victimized by unlawful activities which took place during the civil war.”
Jabateh showed no immediate reaction following the verdict and neither did his wife, who was present in court for the length of the trial.
She has refused to give her first name but agreed to be called Mrs. Jabateh. With her eyes red-rimmed, she stood up looking towards the left corner of the room, where Jabateh sat as the jury walked out of the room.
Outside the court room, she spoke briefly to this reporter hinting cryptically at there being a bigger motive behind Jabateh’s prosecution than just a lie in his immigration application.
“Don’t tell me they spent millions of dollars just to find out if he lied to immigration officials,” Mrs. Jabateh said.
“There’s something bigger than that, but I’m not worried because I or anyone here can change anything.”
Jabateh exchanged whispers with his attorney moments after the verdict.
He looked with resignation at his family and supporters as he was led out of the room in handcuffs moments after federal judge Paul Diamond ordered that “the defendant is remanded to the custody of U.S. Marshalls.”
For federal prosecutor Wright, “this effort started a long time ago and we’re happy there are Liberians who will feel a sense of justice but that wasn’t part of our consideration.”
“It was unusual because how do you get first hand evidence?
The only way you get first hand evidence is to sit down and to talk to witnesses to assure yourself that you know within yourself they’ll in fact be accurate in the recitation of the facts.”
“This was a difficult matter for a couple of reasons. One of them is that the crimes that happened over there the evidence was 20 years old. And that poses its own unique issues.”
Asked if this historic victory should send a message to other war criminals across the African continent about the possibility of the U.S. justice going after them, he replied:
“Well I think we’re also willing to help if we can and if there’s a legal basis for it in this district, we will certainly do our best.”
“We make a determination based solely on the evidence as it’s brought by the investigating agency."
"But there is no hate list to say we are going to seek to prosecute Liberians for anything in particular. No, we look at things on a case by case basis, based solely on the evidence.”
“I hope it gives hope to other people who been victimized and I hope what it means at the very least is that they won’t find a safe haven in the United States,” he warned.
The historic case marked the first time that Liberian war victims were able to testify against a perpetrator for crimes committed during the bloody Liberian civil war in a public trial inside or outside of Liberia.
Until the Jungle Jabbah conviction on Wednesday, no Liberian has been held accountable for war crimes committed in the Liberian civil war that killed more 250, 000 people.
In Liberia Hassan Bility, director of the Global Justice and Research Project celebrated the verdict.
“This is the first verdict giving some measure of redress to Liberian victims who have been yearning for justice for too long,” he said in Monrovia.
GJRP worked with Swiss-based Civitas Maxima to investigate the alleged crimes and put authorities in touch with many of the witnesses who testified.
“This case shows that Liberians do not have to accept the status quo of impunity in Liberia,” Bility said.
“Victims want justice and we will continue to support them in their pursuit of accountability within and outside of Liberia, independent of any tribal affiliation or political influence."
"This is only the beginning. I want to thank the witnesses for their courage, thank the Liberian people for their cooperation and support during the trial and thank the Liberian media for their wide coverage.”
Jefferson Knight, Program Manager of Human Rights Monitor of the United Methodist Church, also welcomed the verdict.
“We think justice has been done,” Knight said. “It is not that we are pushing for a tooth-for-a-tooth, we are only pushing for justice because without justice we cannot have any sustainable peace. It is a very good development for moving our country forward, and we want to inform those who are masquerading around here …that their days are numbered.”
Peterson Sonyah, Executive Director of Liberia Massacre Survivors Association (LIMASA) said he was “very, very happy” with the verdict.
“That is one of our biggest achievements,” he said."
"“That has been our dream that all those warlords who committed heinous crimes that made Liberians vulnerable today that they go to bed on empty stomach have their day in court.”
Liberians on Facebook had mixed views.
Momo Gebah - God doesn’t sleep, he see all things even they are in the dark or light, they must come to light one day."
"Justice is coming to help mama Liberia develop. Liberian need justice. Thanks to those pushing for justice.
Nicholas D. Nimley - For the fact that Jungle is standing trial currently suggest a big step forward for war criminals to be brought to justice - it's good for the trial to go ahead, because justice needs to be served.
But many people, particularly those from Jabateh’s Mandingo tribe, expressed anger.
Vasco Kamara - How can you say it is not about tribe, when in fact the young man fought to save his tribe that was targeted by Taylor rebels.
Many expressed a sense of unfairness that Jabateh has been prosecuted while other accused war criminals have gone free.
Trials are set to go ahead next year against others accused of crimes committed against Liberians during the war.
Agnes Taylor will go on trial in the UK, Martina Johnson in Belgium and Thomas Woewiyu in Philadelphia.
This story was collaboration with New Narratives with funding from Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in its content