Jungle Jabbah and his men raped girls as young as 13 and even forced a woman to cook her husband’s heart, writes Peter Fabricius
Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabbateh, one of the most notorious warlords of the 1990s civil wars in Liberia, was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in a court in Philadelphia, US, on Thursday.
The maximum sentence passed on him has been hailed as a milestone for justice in Liberia and globally.
He was convicted last October of immigration fraud and perjury because he had failed to disclose his war crimes – including murder, rape, torture and cannibalism – when applying for asylum in 1998 and then permanent residence in the US in 2011.
US prosecutors and human rights defenders from the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) in Liberia and Civitas Maxima, based in Geneva, had been unable to charge Jabbateh directly for his atrocities in Liberia because the relevant US laws on war crimes did not apply. Instead, they brought charges under US immigration law.
As a result, the Philadelphia court was given a wide discretion in determining the sentence, which could have been as mild as only “time served”.
Instead, the sentence was far more commensurate with the severity of Jabbateh’s war crimes in Liberia, rather than with lying on an application form for asylum or residence.
The two justice nongovernmental organisations said that 30 years was one of the longest sentences for immigration fraud in US history.
They hailed it as a “milestone for global justice and human rights” and a “long-overdue milestone for justice in Liberia”.
It has now become clear that immigration law is being wielded effectively in the US as an indirect instrument for bringing foreign war criminals to justice. Other suspected Liberian warlords will be similarly tried, the GJRP and Civitas Maxima said in a joint statement.
Jabbateh was a commander in the Ulimo rebel group which, together with Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, launched a rebellion in 1989 to overthrow the government of President Samuel Doe.
The two organisations said that, despite having personally committed, or ordered his soldiers to commit, “barbaric acts of violence, torture, cannibalism and human rights abuses in the First Liberian Civil War (1989 – 1997)” Jabbateh had lived freely in the Philadelphian community known as Little Liberia until his arrest in April 2016.
“During the three-week trial in Philadelphia, prosecutors flew in more than 15 witnesses from Liberia to tell their stories of atrocities committed by Jabbateh and fighters under his command.
“This was the first time that victims of the First Liberian Civil War had the chance to testify in front of a criminal judge.”
The organisations said they had collaborated with US authorities on the investigation since 2014.
“Liberian victims have been waiting for more than 15 years to see their perpetrators held accountable. The Jungle Jabbah conviction and sentence are a testament to the unwavering commitment and resilience of the victims who are making their voices heard, not only within Liberia, but also globally,” said Hassan Bility, director of the GJRP and a survivor of torture himself.
Civitas Maxima’s director, Alain Werner, said: “For years we have been working tirelessly to pursue justice for victims of the most atrocious crimes. Astonishingly, Liberian victims have been denied justice in their own country, so they had to find access to justice elsewhere. The Jungle Jabbah case is an expression of these efforts.
“The fact that Jabbateh was convicted and that victims were heard represents a milestone for Liberia where, after two brutal civil wars which left more than 200 000 dead, nobody was ever held accountable for wartime atrocities.”
Said Bility: “A victim-led movement in favour of accountability for Liberia is clearly in motion. The quest to end impunity in Liberia has just begun.” Many alleged Liberian war criminals were still living their lives as if nothing happened and some held powerful positions in government, hampering trust in public institutions and hindering sustainable reconciliation.
“Victims had to watch some perpetrators gain positions of power. Our postwar politicians have not listened to the victims’ cries. This will have to change. Our hope still remains to see these trials take place in Liberia, so victims of war crimes from all over the country can witness the proceedings,” said Bility.
Werner said the Jungle Jabbah case was the first in a series of cases tried outside of Liberia that they had been working on and indicated that impunity did not have to be the norm.
Civitas Maxima and the GJRP said they would lead outreach campaigns and monitor the upcoming trials of other alleged Liberian war criminals. These were expected to happen in 2018 and 2019.
They had launched a crowdfunding campaign to help Liberian victims in their fight for justice.
Before Jabbateh was convicted, the Philadelphia court heard appalling testimony from witnesses and victims of Jabbateh’s atrocities.
These included eating the hearts of some of his victims, because he believed it would help him gain strength.
In one attack on a village, a woman was ordered to cook her husband’s heart moments after Jungle Jabbah and his soldiers killed him.
The jurors heard evidence of Jabbateh cold-bloodedly executing war prisoners and villagers, fatally shooting a pregnant woman in the vagina, ordering his soldiers to burn enemies alive.
This included a method called “necklacing”, used during South Africa’s apartheid-era political conflict. This involved putting a car tyre doused with petrol around a victim’s neck and setting it alight.
Jurors heard how Jabbateh raped several women or girls as young as 13, by ordering them to be his “wives”.
He gave other women and girls to his soldiers as wives or sex slaves. One of these was eight months pregnant and miscarried because one of Jabbateh’s subordinates repeatedly raped her.
She died because no medical help was available.
Other witnesses testified that Jabbateh tortured some villagers by cutting off their ears or by having their hands tied so tightly behind their backs that their elbows sometimes touched.
He and his soldiers forced many boys to become soldiers and to commit atrocities and forced many villagers to work as slaves in diamond mines.
Prosecutor Linwood Wright told the court any one of these incidents would have been enough for the immigration officer to deny Jabbateh asylum in 1998/1999.
However, Jabbateh denied that he was a rebel commander in Ulimo and instead claimed to have been a member of the Liberian Special Security Service (SSS), the equivalent of the US Secret Service.
The SSS director was one of several witnesses who testified he had never been one of its members.
Jabbateh’s lawyer claimed the Liberian witnesses were biased against his client because of ethnic hostilities or because the two justice organisations had paid them to testify.
He questioned why it had taken them over a quarter of a century to speak up against him.