Above: Mohammed Jabbateh in court. Image: Chase Walker/Civitas Maxima

On April 19, a federal judge in Philadelphia handed down one of the most severe penalties ever imposed by a U.S. court for an immigration fraud case, which centered around war crimes. In sentencing Mohammed Jabbateh to 30 years in prison, the statutory maximum, Judge Paul Diamond commented that the federal sentencing guidelines suggestion of 15 to 21 months would be “outrageously offensive in light of the testimony presented here in court.”

Jabbateh, known in Liberia as “Jungle Jabbah,” was convicted last October of immigration fraud and perjury for providing false information to U.S. immigration officials. Jabbateh was a battalion commander in the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) and later in the breakaway faction ULIMO-K during Liberia’s first civil war, one of two internal armed conflicts that ravaged the small West African nation between 1989 and 2003. When Jabbateh came to the U.S. in 1998, he lied to immigration officials about his role as a commander and combatant in the conflict, denying that he had ever committed a crime, despite (according to evidence uncovered by the U.S. Justice Department) having ordered and personally committed numerous atrocities including: murder, enslavement, and torture of civilian noncombatants; sexual enslavement and public raping of women; conscription of child soldiers; and the desecration and mutilation of corpses and ritual consumption of human hearts. (On why this was brought as an immigration fraud case, see our prior coverage for Just Security here). To prove their case, prosecutors had to present evidence of these atrocities. Twenty Liberian witnesses, most of whom traveled from Liberia to the United States to testify, told the Court about Jabbateh’s high-ranking position as a rebel commander and the horrors he perpetrated upon them and their families.

Over an intense three weeks, the Philadelphia courtroom heard first-hand accounts of rape, sexual slavery, murder, maiming, torture, and cannibalism. I was a trial monitor for these proceedings, and palpably felt the resiliency and courage of the witnesses on the stand. Even through the most heart-wrenching testimony, they were steadfast in their determination to make the truth of their suffering known. For many of the survivors who testified, this was the first opportunity they had to be heard. Facing their abuser and detailing the “years of terror” he inflicted upon them was an empowering moment.

This case is a monumental victory for Liberians and is reported to have generated immense hope among survivors that accountability is possible. Moreover, the cathartic effect of prosecutions – regardless of where they take place – cannot be discounted. As Liberian human rights activist Hassan Bility has observed, this case has shown the survivors of Liberia’s civil wars that “their voices [will be] heard not only in Liberia but globally.”

It is crucial, however, that prosecutions for wartime abuses in Liberia take place domestically as well. Survivors of these abuses have expressed their desire for prosecutions to be brought in Liberia, particularly so fellow survivors can access the proceedings. In 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended the creation of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia to investigate and prosecute alleged war criminals. Yet, no court was ever established and, to date, no one has been held accountable in Liberia for wartime human rights violations. The blatant impunity and lack of a domestic institutional response to war crimes has created a sense of injustice among Liberians.

Hence, Jabbateh’s conviction comes at a critical moment. We are in the midst of a global movement for justice in Liberia. The international community has spoken out in support of domestic prosecutions and has urged Liberian President George Weah to prioritize accountability efforts. This call for justice is being echoed at the United Nations, which recently encouraged Liberia to fulfill its international obligations to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocities by implementing the TRC recommendations. Within Liberia, the Liberian Council of Churches is also, for the first time, calling for implementation of the TRC recommendations, following the recent filing of a civil lawsuit in the U.S. against Moses Thomas, former head of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia and alleged commander of the Lutheran Church Massacre. (See more on this case here). Advocates have indicated that in order to address the culture of impunity in Liberia, justice must become a living reality.

The Jabbateh case is only the beginning. In Europe and the U.S., there are currently five cases involving Liberian civil-war-era crimes that have been filed, with four expected to go to trial this year. In June, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will hear the immigration fraud trial of former National Patriotic Front (NPFL) Defense Minister Thomas Woewiyu. The case against Moses Thomas was brought in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. Additionally, under universal jurisdiction laws, there will be the trials of NPFL Commander Martina Johnson in Belgium for atrocity crimes; United Liberation Movement (ULIMO) Commander Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland for crimes against humanity and torture; and Agnes Reeves Taylor, former President Charles Taylor’s ex-wife, in the United Kingdom for her alleged role in NPFL abuses in Liberia. These cases were preceded by the 2009 U.S. conviction of Charles ‘Chuckie’ Taylor, son of Charles Taylor, for torture and conspiracy to commit torture as head of Liberia’s Anti-Terrorist Unit, the first substantive international crimes prosecution.

Survivors in Liberia have been calling for justice for nearly two decades and this international push for accountability aims to ensure that one day justice will be served not only in extraterritorial cases but at home. As Bility said, “A victim-led movement in favor of accountability for Liberia is clearly in motion. The quest to end impunity in Liberia has just begun.”