Jungle Jabbah Verdict – Liberia’s Way Forward After Momentous Elections

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The Liberian people are anxiously awaiting the December 26 date set by the National Elections Commission for the conduct of the October 10, 2017 run-off presidential election, that is if no further delays are mandated by the Supreme Court of Liberia, in the face of mounting challenge by the Unity Party to the state of preparedness of the National Elections Commission.

This comes in the wake of an earlier Supreme Court ruling against the Liberty Party led challenge to the outcome of the October 10, 2017 presidential and Legislative Elections. 

For the first time in post-war Liberia, current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is heavily backed by the international community, is not running for office.

This means the first transfer of power since the peace agreement, a crucial test for the oldest African republic and its young democracy. After a peaceful first round, some parties alleged irregularities which caused the Supreme Court to issue an injunction on the second round.

The Supreme Court ruled that the run-off will go ahead and ordered the National Elections Commission to begin the process. The streets of Monrovia are calm but the atmosphere is a bit tense as the Liberian people await Boxing Day scheduled presidential run-off election. 

Another historic event for Liberia just happened thousands of miles away from the coastal West-African republic which began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society in the 1820s.

On 18 October 2017, a jury of 12 in Philadelphia found Liberian national, Mohammed Jabbateh, aka Jungle Jabbah, guilty of two counts of fraud in immigration documents and two counts of perjury. The date of his sentencing hearing was set for February 6, 2018. 

This case is historic because it marks the first time that Liberian victims got to tell their stories of atrocities committed during the first Liberian civil war (1989-1996) in a public and fair trial. It was also the first trial ever of a former commander of the armed group ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy in Liberia). 

After two civil wars that, according to conservative estimates, left 150 000 people dead and many more displaced, a war during which sexual violence was rampant and all armed groups relied heavily on child soldiers, Liberian victims were left without redress.  

To be clear: “Jungle Jabbah” was not, strictly speaking, tried for war crimes. The US is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court and does not have jurisdiction over Jabbateh’s crimes. Nevertheless, U.S. prosecutors have found another way to indirectly try him for war crimes. 

In order to prove that Jabbateh had provided false information to U.S. immigration authorities and procured asylum in the United States by fraud, the prosecution had to prove that he was a high-ranking rebel commander during the Liberian civil war and committed criminal actions while in that position. 

20 witnesses traveled from Liberia to Philadelphia to testify in detail about horrific acts such as cannibalism, rape, murder and slavery.

On the first day of trial, prosecutor Thayer told the Jury that they would “see the faces of trauma” and would hear about the “common methods of brutality” Jungle Jabbah and some of the fighters under his command used against their victims. 

Despite this explicit announcement, the jury hardly could have imagined what was to follow as the witnesses courageously and defiantly looked the defendant in the eyes and proceeded to describe despicable atrocities in detail.

Witness 3, for example, explained to the jury that Jabbateh “took” women in her village and “gave” them to soldiers, threatening to kill them if they refused.

She was “given” to one of Jabbateh’s adult fighters who proceeded to hold her as a sex slave, violently and repeatedly raping her over the next 15 months.She was 13 years old at the time. 

The jurors also heard from Witness 4, who testified that Jungle Jabbah put his pistol into her pregnant sister’s vagina and pulled the trigger. She could only watch as her sister jerked and twitched on the ground as she died.  Jungle Jabbah then gave a warning that no one should move the body; it should be left to rot.  

Sobbing, Witness 18 described how her husband was killed by Jabbateh’s men who then ordered her to cook his heart. As she was trying to cook it, the soldiers pulled her clothes off and attempted to rape her. 

Faced with such brutal allegations, Jabbateh’s defense counsel tried to attack the witnesses’ motives and insinuated that they were inventing, exaggerating or motivated by tribal hatred.  In his opening statement he argued that a reasonable person would ask, “where were these people and allegations” 15 years ago? 

During his cross-examinations, however, the jury was confronted with the reality of blatant impunity and lack of an institutional response to war crimes in Liberia. 

When asked why they had never reported these crimes, witnesses explained that “there were only rebel soldiers back then”. One witness said he “was only waiting for justice” while another stated that, in the 24 years since the war, “there was no one to tell.” 

This is exactly why this guilty verdict is historic and significant for Liberia: This time there was a whole court room full of people who finally listened to the victims’ stories. Finally, there was somebody to tell. 

While a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued recommendations in favour of setting up a Special Criminal Court to prosecute alleged war criminals in 2009, they were ignored by politicians who were focused on saving their own skin. Nobody has ever been held accountable for these crimes in Liberia and nobody ever listened to the victims. 

The verdict marks a turning point in this culture of impunity. Civitas Maxima (CM) and the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), both independent and apolitical NGOs, have been collaborating since 2014 with U.S. authorities on the investigation of crimes Jabbateh allegedly committed in Liberia. We have supported the victims in their quest for justice and are supporting many others in their pursuit of accountability in trials around the world.

The reactions to the verdict in Liberia were widely positive. According to Philadelphia-based Liberian human rights activist Alphonso Nyenuh, quoted in the Liberian Front Page Africa, the trial and verdict were “historic and welcomed.” 

He said, “The process gave not just victims of Jabbah’s crimes but the thousands of Liberian victims the assurance that they can one day face their abusers in a fair and open court without the fear of reprisal or retribution. It shows that accountability is possible. It was a great day.” 

These extraterritorial trials provide some form of closure to the victims and are very important for Liberia. But they are not enough. The Jungle Jabbah trial and several other arrests of alleged Liberian war criminals in European countries that may soon lead to public trials show that the victims will not be silenced. They are claiming their day in court on a global scale they are demanding that somebody listens. 

As the Liberian presidential election, which marks the first post-war democratic handover of power, heads into the second round, Liberian leaders must remember that a way forward must include a form of accountability. In our opinion, in the form of unbiased, fair trials of alleged criminals of all tribes and warring factions on African soil. 

As Massa Washington, former Commissioner of the TRC who followed the trial in Philadelphia said in an interview with Liberian New Narratives journalists: “One day in Liberia, just like how we were going here in Philadelphia to the court room and sitting down quietly and respectfully and watching the trial, one day we will be going to the courts in Liberia and we will be sitting down and watching the trials of perpetrators who have done horrible things to people. I am sure.”  

About Author,

Hassan Bility is the Director of the Global Justice and Research Project based in Monrovia, Liberia. He is the former director of Communications at the Institute for International Justice and Development, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA; former Editor of the Press Union of Liberia’s Media Line, Monrovia, Liberia; a former member of the International Rescue Committee Boston branch Board, and former Editor-in-Chief of The Analyst Newspaper in Monrovia, Liberia. Bility has received several international awards. In 2003, he received the Amnesty International, United Kingdom, Human Rights Journalism Under Threat Award, and was the Hellman-Hammett grant award from Human Rights Watch in New York, United States

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