Philadelphia, PA - Some 3000 miles away from the crime scenes, and after 20 years living with the mental and physical scars, Liberian victims are being reunited with the man they described as a ruthless murderer during his reign as commander of a rebel group in Western Liberia in the early to mid-1990's.
The U.S. Department of Justice has flown in 20 victims or witnesses to testify against former ULIMO rebel General Mohammed Jabateh, AKA Jungle Jabbah. Jabateh, now 51, and a father of five, operates a shipping outlet in Southwest Philadelphia.
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.
U.S. attorney Nelson Thayer maintained in court last week that Jabateh concealed his role as a commander in the Zebra Battalion, a unit of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO).
He said Jabateh joined ULIMO in neighboring Sierra Leone to challenge Charles Taylor’s NPFL in 1992.
The Defense: “Mr. Jabateh is a victim and he has scars on his body to show.”
On the fourth day of the trial this week the court got to hear Jabateh’s own war story.
In a six-page personal statement Jabateh wrote to support his asylum petition he claimed that he and his family fled into neighboring Sierra Leone on July 28, 1990 to escape fighting.
A rebel for then-warlord, Charles Taylor’s NPFL manning a guard post near the border attempted to kill him and his family.
He wrote that he “fled in the bush with some of my family members,” but his mother and brother were killed because they could not run.
He wrote that he was recruited in Sierra Leone to serve as a liaison officer between newly arriving refugees and a newly-formed rebel group named ULIMO.
He also wrote that years later when he returned to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Charles Taylor had won the Liberian Presidential elections.
He claimed that he was instructed, along with hundreds of his tribal Mandingos, to report to the Executive Mansion grounds twice a week.
He said while there at one point, he was picked out of the crowd by the later Liberian Police Commissioner Joe Tate, who took him to “Watanga Camp” near Taylor’s former residence in Monrovia.
“They burned me with cigarettes, beat me, and kept me for three weeks without food or medical treatment.”
Jabateh said he was discovered and subsequently released after a visit to the camp by officers of the West African peacekeeping forces, ECOMOG.
Being Mandingo and a Muslim, Jabateh wrote that, “My ethnicity and religion are being targeted by NPFL insurgents.”
He said he returned to Bomi, where he received training by ECOMOG as an “intelligent officer” and was assigned to work for the disarmament program.
He said he would eventually become an officer of the Special Security Service (SSS) assigned with his former ULIMO supreme leader, General Alhaji Kromah.
Jabateh’s defense attorney Gregory J. Pagano claimed this was evidence that Jabateh had been honest with immigration officers.
“This man did not come here failing to disclose he was,” said Pagano. “He told the government that he was a ULIMO.”
“These witnesses did not tell anyone until the federal government came to Liberia and started interviewing them. We are talking 15-20 years post incident. Where were these complaints 15, 20 years ago?” Pagano shouted as he crossed examined a witness.
“It’s when the U.S. government comes to town, when the world’s superpower comes to town, that these allegations come about,” Pagago added.
“He did say in my interview with him that he was member of ULIMO,” said US immigration officer who had interviewed Jabateh during his asylum proceedings.
At the time, the officer said, he had no knowledge or little knowledge about what ULIMO was.
The Charges: 2 counts of fraud in immigration documents; 2 counts of perjury.
Jabateh’s statement came in day 4 of Jabeteh’s trial which is expected to take 4 weeks. Earlier days in the trial had focused on the claim that Jabateh had willfully misled US immigration officials when he claimed asylum in the U.S.
In January of 1999, during the asylum process, Jabateh was interviewed by an immigration asylum officer to determine whether his application should be granted.
To this end, it is alleged that Jabateh 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, Jabateh 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.
It is alleged that when Jabateh applied for legal permanent residency by filing a Form I-485 with United States immigration authorities, he falsely responded "No" to questions like this:
“Have you ever engaged in genocide, or otherwise ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the killing of any person because of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion?”
According to the charges, the defendant “knew his answer was false in that he had ordered, incited, assisted, and otherwise participated in the killing of any person 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.”
The U.S. charged that in December of 1998, when making applications for asylum and later for permanent legal residency, “the defendant was not truthful about his activities during Liberia’s first civil war while he was a member of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) and later ULIMO-K, a rebel group that battled for control of Liberia.”
Jabateh was a commander or higher ranking officer in ULIMO and ULIMO-K. According to the charges, “Jabateh, during his overall time as a ULIMO commander or higher ranking officer, either personally committed, or ordered ULIMO troops under his command to commit the following nonexclusive list of acts:
- the murder of civilian noncombatants;
- the sexual enslavement of women;
- the public raping of women;
- the maiming of civilian noncombatants;
- the torturing of civilian noncombatants
- the enslavement of civilian noncombatants;
- the conscription of child soldiers;
- the execution of prisoners of war;
- the desecration and mutilation of corpses; and 10) the killing of persons because of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion.”
“You can’t commit heinous war crimes in your home country and come to this country and try to stay here and lie about those crimes,” said U.S. prosecutor Thayer to jurors in a packed courtroom.
Defense Attorney Pagano may have some of Jabateh’s witnesses available to testify via satellite from the American Embassy in Monrovia, if witnesses are unable to gather their traveling documents and show up in court by October 17, Judge Paul Diamond said before Thursday’s closing.
Prosecuting Attorney Thayer said, for the next days, the government will continue with more of its witnesses. The trial will resume on Tuesday.
If found guilty, Jabateh faces up 30 years in person. He will not be deported.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives with funding from Civitas Maxima. The funder had not say in the story’s content.
Report by Jackson Kanneh