Monrovia – Hassan Bility, the renowned advocate for justice of victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has said that the trial of former ULIMO general Mohammed Jabateh in the United States shows that Liberians are becoming open to ending the culture of impunity at home.
“I believe that Liberians have been able to realize that the culture of impunity has plagued this country for about a hundred and seventy years, and that nothing has changed,” Bility said in an exclusive interview with New Narratives/FrontPage Africa carried live on Facebook recently.
“Liberia has been doing the same thing over and over and nothing’s changed. I am happy that Liberians who have lived in other countries and who have begun to see the development in other places are now beginning to realize that the best way forward is to discourage this culture of impunity,” he added.
Jabateh, 51, is on trial for immigration fraud and perjury for allegedly lying to American immigration officials when he sought asylum in 1998. He faces 30 years in an American prison.
Prosecution lawyers have taken 20 Liberians to testify against the former ULIMO K commando, who went by the name “Jungle Jabbah”.
The jury of Philadelphians has been engrossed by the testimonies of the Liberian witnesses, who have already testified in a Philadelphia federal court, where the trial has been ongoing since October 2, 2017. They have cringed and wept as they have heard stories of rape, murder and cannibalism allegedly carried out by Jabateh and his Zebra brigade.
Bility, whose Global Justice and Research Project documents war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia, said the trial was sending a wakeup call against impunity to many Liberians home and abroad.
“I am very much happy that this is going to make a huge difference—as far as people’s reaction to this trial is concerned—that the concept of let-bygone-be-bygone cannot take root in the society again,” Bility said. “That has not helped. It has, in fact, in my opinion, destroyed some of the socioeconomic fabric of this nation,” he added.
An estimated 300,000 people died and thousands more displaced during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war, which ended in 2003.
Recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009 for prosecution of those will bear the greatest responsibilities of atrocities were not carried out by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in 2006.
Johnson-Sirleaf has said that prosecuting perpetrators in Liberia’s civil war including Nimba senator and presidential candidate Prince Johnson will risk the fragile peace that Liberia has enjoyed since the war.
None of the leading candidates in this presidential election cycle has promised to pursue justice for crimes committed in Liberia’s civil wars.
But Bility said Jabateh was a reminder for justice of thousands of war victims in Liberia and hint to war criminals that there is nowhere to hide.
“The U.S. in its bid to prove its case against Mr. Jabateh is using war crimes victims in Liberia. This is giving hope to people,” Bility said. “The hope that it is generating is becoming so immense that people are calling for prosecution inside Liberia.
“That is not possible because we have a government that is either not willing or able to, in my view, to do that. He said it will prevent people from lying to immigration official anywhere around the world.”
Several Liberians have been put on trial for war crimes or war crime-related offences during the Liberian civil war. Former President Charles Taylor’s son, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr. was sentenced to 97 years in a U.S. jail in the first prosecution of a US citizen for torture committed outside a U.S. territory.
Mr. Taylor’s former wife, Agnes Reeves Taylor was indicted in the U.K. in June this year for alleged torture and conspiracy to torture during the civil war. Her case is expected to go to trial early in the new year. (Taylor’s conspirator would presumably be Charles Taylor.
That fact raises the specter of having the convicted war criminal brought from his UK jail cell to testify.) Former NPFL commando Martina Johnson was arrested in Belgium in 2014 for war offenses she was alleged to have committed here. She is also due to go on trial next year.
And former Defense Minister of the NPFL Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu was arrested in 2014 in the United States on seven counts of immigration perjury. Cases are being pursued against others.
Liberians have mixed views about the prosecution of war criminals. While some have said prosecuting war criminals would restore the rule of law and end the culture of impunity, others have said that would be “opening old wounds”.
Journalists, prosecutors and Bility himself have faced threats and intimidation for the Jabateh trial, particularly from members of the Mandingo tribe from which Jabateh and Bility come.
Bility said he understood why people don’t want a war crime court or any form of justice for over atrocities of the civil war.
“[Warlords] were manufacturing stories of threat,” he said. “They were telling people that ‘If you arrest Charles Taylor, there will be war’. If you arrest whomever, the skies are going to come down falling.
And the people’s reaction was reasonable because the people, contingent on what they had experienced during the war, did not want to go back to the war. They did not want to go back to the war.”
But Bility insisted there is a link between all these trials and the quest for justice in Liberia for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war. He said there is a growing understanding among Liberians that accountability is necessary.
“This connection is very important, and I think this should be a wakeup call to Liberian politicians to begin to prioritize accountability. It doesn’t necessarily have to be war crimes accountability but accountability in many other areas. For Liberia to move forward, for reconciliation to happen there has got to be justice, closure for the victims.”
Report by James Harding Giahyue
The story was produced as collaboration with New Narratives with funding from Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content