PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – They carried terrifying names like “General Cobra Red”, “Bad Blood DeJangle” and “Bullet Vest” and committed horrific crimes during the early days of the civil war. In a significant ruling, a judge in Philadelphia today ordered their leader, Mohammed Jabbateh, AKA Jungle Jabbah, to spend 30 years in prison for those crimes.
Report By Jackson Kanneh in Philadelphia, James Harding Giahyue at “Jungle Jabbah” Bridge in Gbarplou and Tecee Boley at Lofa Bridge, Cape Mount
Jabbateh, now 51, has become the first Liberian to be tried and convicted for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war. Former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rejected the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report that more than 90 combatants be tried.
“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 means that Liberia is headed in the right direction; it means that the victims have won in this case and it also means that our work did not go in vain.”
It is the longest sentence ever given in a US court for criminal immigration fraud. US statutes for war crimes were not in place when Jabbateh committed his crimes so he was tried for immigration fraud – lying to immigration authorities about his war time role when he applied for asylum in 1998.
Judge Paul S. Diamond, said Jabbateh’s crimes were “egregious”. He rejected all objections from Jabbateh’s lawyers saying that his crimes violated US laws in “the most offensive manner possible.” He listed Jabbateh’s long list of crimes saying, “it was difficult to believe anyone could be capable of committing those acts.” He said the prison term suggested in the federal sentencing guidelines were not only “unreasonable but outrageously offensive” given Jabbateh’s crimes.
“I want to be clear,” Judge Diamond said. “I am departing not based on the horror of the atrocities the defendant committed abroad. Rather, I am departing based on the egregiousness of his lies… and their effect on our asylum laws and immigration system.”
In his statement US Assistant District Attorney Nelson Thayer urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence saying that 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 the U.S. is a country of laws and those who violate them will be prosecuted. “If he does not deserve the maximum,” Thayer asked “Who does?”
Judge Diamond asked Jabbateh, who had sat still through the hearing, if he wanted to speak. “Your Honor, sir, I have nothing to say,” he said.
In an interview with FPA after the hearing Thayer paid credit to the 17 Liberian witnesses who had come from Liberia to the court to testify against Jabbateh. “We both immediately thought of the victims,” said Thayer of himself and lead prosecutor Linwood C. Wright. “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, 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 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 Jabbateh. He said Jabbateh was only acting in defense of his people when he commited the acts.
Jabbateh’s lawyer Greg Pagano said the case was untrue and cooked up by Jabbateh’s political opponents. He said Jabbateh would appeal the decision.
“This defendant committed acts of such violence and depravity that they are almost beyond belief,” said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain. “This man is responsible for atrocities that will ripple for generations in Liberia. He thought he could hide here but thanks to the determination and creativity of our prosecutors and investigators, he couldn’t.”
Jabbateh was found was found guilty on four-counts of U.S. immigration fraud and perjury charges – all linked to atrocities he committed nearly three decades ago 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 order to prove that 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 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 Jabbateh had ordered he 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 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.
That witness showed the jury a scar on the left side of his head where his ear used to be saying it had been chopped off after the witness asked a question Jabbateh disliked. He told jurors that soldiers under Jabbah’s command captured two men from the rival Krahn ULIMO J militia and burned them alive in a well.
Another juror told how Jabbateh had taken her as his bush wife when she was 13 years old, raping her multiple times a day. He had also killed her pregnant sister by placing a gun into her vagina and firing then ordering her body to be left to rot where it lay. Jurors identities were concealed to protect them from retaliation.
Jabbah, now 51, and a father of ten, 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.
According to the indictment, the defendant knew his answer was false in that he had ordered, incited, assisted, and otherwise participated in the killing of “because of religion, nationality, ethnic origin, and political opinion; and knew that he had procured asylum in the United States by fraud and willful misrepresentation of material fact.”
U.S. attorney Nelson Thayer maintained in court that Jabbateh concealed his role as a commander in the Zebra Battalion. He said Jabbateh had been recruited in neighboring Sierra Leone to challenge Charles Taylor’s NPFL. Jabbateh claimed in a six-page note to support his asylum petition that he and his parents had fled to Sierra Leone because his ethnic Mandingo tribesmen were singled out for executions by Charles Taylor’s rebels.
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.”
Woewiyu’s trial will begin in Philadelphia on June 11.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives. Civitas Maxima funded the reporting but the donor had no say in its content.