Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – The Philadelphia federal court which convicted the ex-Liberian militia warlord last week on perjury charges announced Monday that the sentencing hearing will open on January 18, 2018.
Judge Paul S. Diamond will sentence Mohammed Jabateh, known as Jungle Jabbah, after the former warlord, now 51 was found guilty on all four counts of federal immigration and perjury charges by a 12-member jury.
He faces up to 30 years in prison, and he will not be deported for this case.
The conviction marks the first closure for many Liberian villagers, mostly from the northwestern former stronghold of ULIMO-K, the rebel faction Jabbah led as a commander.
His trial represents 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.
Liberians had mixed reactions but most were euphoric over last week’s guilty verdict of the ex-warlord.
The ex-general of the ULIMO rebel force operated in several counties in northwestern Liberia from 1992 through most of the country’s 16-year civil wars.
He led the force as a commander of the “ruthless Zebra Battalion” – the role the federal indictment says he intentionally obscured in his application and from U.S. immigration asylum officers.
Widespread atrocities, rapes, ritual cannibalism and slave labor committed by former rebel commanders and their fighters have been ignored for nearly 14-years after the last ceasefire that led to two successive democratic elections in the West African nation.
Years of stop and go civil wars left an estimated 250,000 people killed and untold stories of summary executions, rapes, torture, massacres and forced labor throughout the country.
While thousands of survivors had remained silent for nearly two decades, many of the perpetrators continued to be shielded by their allies within the Liberian government.
Liberian and international human rights campaigners had been increasingly frustrated by Liberia’s lack of interest in pursuing any action against the many warlords currently employed in the government led by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Liberian human watchers say hundreds, if not thousands roam freely in and around Liberia’s West African neighbors, Europe, Asia and the United States.
On top of the list of warlords serving in senior Liberian government positions is Senator Prince Y. Johnson, the ex-warlord infamously known for ordering the videotaped mutilation of then President Samuel Doe in 1991.
Prince Y. Johnson, who contested the two past presidential elections, including the most recent on October 10, by many accounts was probably the most brutal of the many warlords.
He was famous for publicly executing his victims, at times in full view of the victim’s spouses or kids. He would arrest relief workers and non-combatants, interrogate them and summarily execute those he thought were “suspicious, evil or gay.”
One of such killings that many Liberians remembered and for which many in the country say they can never forgive this warlord-Senator and presidential candidate, was the execution of Tecumseh Roberts, a popular musical icon he accused of being gay.
Witnesses say Roberts was stopped, taken to Johnson and shot by a deputy in his presence.
Johnson confirmed that Roberts was killed because allegedly “he was involved in homosexual activities,” telling the Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Monrovia in 2008, “Gen. Samuel Varnii ordered Tecumseh Roberts to take off his trouser. Gen. Varnii shot and killed Mr. Roberts,” disclosed Johnson.
In January of 1999, during the asylum seeking process, Jabbateh was interviewed by an immigration asylum officer for purposes of determining whether his application should be granted.
To this end, it is alleged that Jabbateh falsely responded “no” to the following two queries: (1) “Have you ever committed a crime?” and (2) “Have you ever harmed anyone else?” In December 1999, Jabbateh received asylum, based on his answers on the then INS Form I-589, which asks a series of questions to determine an applicant’s past.
Liberians took to social media in what can only be described as a mixed barrage of postings that pitted Jabateh’s supporters against supporters of the verdict.
His sentencing is in the hands of federal judge who ordered Jabateh back to the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia.
Quincy Kilby: “My family lived in Bomi Hills (Tubmanburg) when this guy was carrying out his terrible acts. He killed some good people.”
Abu Bility: “This whole case is based on tribal hatred against peaceful Mandingoes and Muslims in Liberia.”
Many on Facebook who share Jabateh’s Mandingo ethnicity did not welcome the verdict or his trial, with some calling the trial a “Mandingo witch hunt” and the coverage by journalists “biased.”
Supporters of Jabateh wondered “why is he the only one on trial? Where is Prince Johnson, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and others are big shots in Liberia?”
Jabateh in his 1999 asylum claim alleged that he watched both his mother and older brother killed by rebels led by then warlord Charles Taylor, while fleeing the civil war that killed more than 150,000 Liberians.
He further claimed in a personal six-page note that his ethnic Mandingos who are largely Muslims, were being “targeted and slaughtered by Charles Taylor’s rebel NPFL.”
Most of his supporters who followed the trial decried his conviction, calling him a “victim” because “he watched his mother get killed,” and “he was defending Mandingos.”
These sentiments were strikingly different from those shared by the larger Liberian communities across the United States and around Liberia.”
“Many commenters do not generalize their negative comments towards Mr. Jabateh’s Mandingo tribe.
From Liberian human rights activists, journalists, clergymen, and professionals, the conviction was “just” and they hope the punishment would be far-reaching enough to encourage many victims to tell their stories without fear.
Pastor Henry Peabody, a Liberian outside of Philadelphia, said the “verdict of Jungle Jabbah is a clear indication of what we do in darkness can come to light.”
The Baptist pastor added: “I am glad that justice was finally served and the innocent lives he took can now finally rest in peace.”
Philadelphia-based human rights activist Alphonso Nyenuh called the trial and verdict “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 with the fear of reprisal or retribution. It shows that accountability is possible. It was a great day.”
Liberian media personality Jeremiah Ray Parker said, “It was about time Liberia got away from the notion that there will be perpetual impunity for actions against humanity.”
The scars of years of lawless violence remain visible around Liberia, 20 years post Jabbah’s reign in western Liberia, where villagers testified they lived under constant fear of rape, slave labor and murder at the hands of militia forces, many of them as young as nine.
“When we lived there, there was no other authorities to turn to or a place to run to. It was him, his soldiers, power and authority we lived by,” said a witness who testified against Jabbah.
“That’s what I love about America, no signs go unpunished,” said a Facebook poster, referring the historic Jabateh trial.
Report by Jackson Kanneh
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives and funded by Civitas Maxima. The funder had not say in its content