On October 2nd, a federal court in Philadelphia opened the trial of alleged Liberian war criminal Mohammed Jabbateh for immigration fraud and perjury. Jabbateh, known in Liberia as “Jungle Jabbah,” is alleged to be a battalion commander and combatant of the rebel group the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) and later the breakaway faction, called the ULIMO-K, during Liberia’s first civil war, which devastated the West African nation in the 1990s. According to the indictment, Jabbateh, while in Liberia, personally committed and ordered horrific abuses against the civilian population: including rape, sexual enslavement, murder, maiming, and torture of civilian non-combatants, conscription of child soldiers, cannibalism, and the killing of persons because of their race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion. Jabbateh is alleged to have hidden this history from immigration officials when he sought asylum and later legal permanent residence in the United States.

Liberians experienced some of the most serious atrocities during its 14-year armed conflict. In December 1989, Charles Taylor and his rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched an invasion to remove then-president Samuel Doe and his Armed Forces of Liberia from power. Even after Doe was killed, additional rebel groups emerged to fight Taylor’s forces for control of Liberia, including Jabbateh’s ULIMO. The first civil war continued until 1996, when a tentative peace agreement and ceasefire was established, but the violence resumed after Taylor was elected president in 1997. By the end of the second civil war in 2003, approximately 250,000 civilians died and more than half the population was displaced. In 2009, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that all warring factions, including the ULIMO and ULIMO-K, had committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other egregious abuses, and identified 98 perpetrators for additional investigation and prosecution. The Commission also recommended the creation of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia to prosecute perpetrators in Liberia. To date, no one has been held accountable in Liberia and a court was never established to prosecute these crimes. 

Outside of Liberia, only one person has been held criminally accountable for civil war era atrocities. In 2009, the United States convicted Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, the son of the former president, for torture and conspiracy to commit torture while head of Liberia’s Anti-Terrorist Unit (the first and only time the U.S. convicted someone under the Torture Act, 18 USC § 2340A). Chuckie is currently serving a 97-year prison sentence in Florida. His father, the elder Taylor, was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, but has never faced justice for the abuses linked to him, and soldiers under his command, in Liberia.

The trial against Jabbateh marks the second criminal trial related to Liberia’s civil war. Given that the majority of Jabbateh’s alleged crimes took place before the Torture Act was enacted, the Act does not apply here. Moreover, as a rebel commander, Jabbateh’s conduct may not fit the statutory definition of torture, which requires that the acts be committed under “color of law.”   Instead, Jabbateh faces charges of two counts of immigration fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1546, and two counts of perjury, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1621.

According to the indictment, when applying for asylum in 1998, Jabbateh withheld his role as a combatant for ULIMO and ULIMO-K, and responded “no” to whether he had ever committed a crime or harmed anyone else. Later, when applying for legal permanent residency, Jabbateh denied having ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the killing of any person because of race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin or political opinion. To prove the allegations of fraud and perjury, prosecutors will need to show that Jabbateh was indeed involved in such abuses in Liberia. If proven, Jabbateh faces up to 30 years in prison.

This case has taken on significant importance to the people of Liberia, International NGOs and human rights groups, who are now looking to foreign governments to prosecute Liberian war criminals, using principles of universal jurisdiction, until Liberia establishes its own war crimes court. Indictments have been issued against alleged Liberian perpetrators residing in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Jabbateh’s trial is being held at the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania, before the Honorable Judge Paul S. Diamond, and is anticipated to continue through the end of October. Daily trial monitoring reports are provided by Civitas Maxima, and updates on the trial and future cases will also be posted on the Liberian Quest for Justice Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the organization for which she works. 

Image: Getty/Chris Hondros