A federal appeals court in Philadelphia this week endorsed the 30-year sentence imposed on a Delaware County man accused of hiding his past in the 1990s as a murderous Liberian warlord, affirming one of the longest sentences ever given to an accused war criminal convicted of immigration fraud in the United States.
Mohammed Jabateh, 53, of East Lansdowne, was convicted in 2017 only of perjury and fraud while applying for permanent residency, counts that in his case would normally have led to a sentence of less than two years.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit stood by the judge’s decision to fashion a punishment of more than 15 times that suggested prison term in light of what Jabateh was accused of lying about: The numerous atrocities survivors said he committed, including acts of murder, rape, enslavement, and cannibalism during a protracted civil war that ravaged Liberia between 1989 and 1997.
“Over and over, the District Court explained its decision hinged on the gravity of Jabateh’s concealment of his commission of every conceivable war crime and countless human rights offenses,” wrote Circuit Judges Thomas L. Ambro, Paul Matey, and Julio M. Fuentes in their opinion, released Tuesday, adding: "Although the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, they do not turn without purpose."
But in reaching that conclusion, the panel made a surprising finding: That Jabateh had been convicted in part of charges that do not apply to the circumstance of his case. Yet it let those convictions stand because his original lawyer did not raise objections to them at trial.
“The result is quite startling,” Jabateh’s appellate lawyer, Peter Goldberger, said, adding that he and his client are considering asking the full court to rehear the case.
Jabateh’s 2017 conviction in Philadelphia was hailed at the time as historic by a generation of survivors both in Liberia and the Philadelphia area, where a sizable community of expats fleeing the brutal conflict settled as refugees.
It was the first time that anyone had ever been prosecuted — let alone convicted — anywhere in the world for crimes connected to the numerous documented human rights violations committed during the multi-factioned ethnic fighting that left more than 250,000 of the West African nation’s civilians dead.
Some former rebel leaders still hold positions of power in the government in Monrovia, and the ethnic rivalries that fueled the war still divide the nation.
And while the United States does not generally have jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed by non-U. S. citizens in conflicts waged overseas, for years the Justice Department has sought to weed out war criminals hiding in the U.S. by charging them with lying about their pasts on their applications to live in the country.
It has used the tactic to imprison, then expel, Nazis, Bosnian and Rwandan military commanders, and, in several investigations, Liberians living in and around Philadelphia.
Jabateh’s wartime record stood out even among those ignominious ranks for what the appellate judges described Tuesday as “monstrous” acts committed with “bone-chilling cruelty.”
“Jabateh fully deserved the 30-year sentence that the district court imposed for [his] fraudulent conduct to enter the United States after engaging in such barbarity,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a statement Wednesday. "
By the time of his 2016 arrest, Jabateh had moved to the U.S., fathered five children, and launched a Philadelphia-based international shipping company. But all of the 17 Liberian war victims flown in to testify against him identified Jabateh immediately from the witness stand as the brutal rebel commander whose reputation during the war earned him the nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah.”
One testified she had been captured, raped for weeks by Jabateh’s men, then turned into a sex slave at 13 before she managed to escape. Another detailed how he had been forced into slavery to dig diamonds on threat of death to fund the warlord’s military campaigns.
And in perhaps the most wrenching testimony of his trial, the wife of a village chieftain alleged that Jabateh’s soldiers killed her husband and then delivered his heart to her on a platter. Jabateh, she said, ordered her to cook it for him and his men to eat.
“The record goes on and on, but we will not,” the appellate judges wrote Tuesday. “It is enough to say without exaggeration that the atrocities documented at trial, and found by a jury, paint the portrait of a madman.”
Jabateh challenged both his conviction and the 30-year sentence in his appeal before the Third Circuit, arguing that the Justice Department had twisted the law to put him on trial for war crimes over which it had no jurisdiction.
Though he was convicted on two counts of fraud on immigration documents, that statue only applies to written responses. Because Jabateh’s written immigration paperwork was filed in 2002 and he wasn’t charged until 14 years later, his written submissions fell outside of the statute of limitations, his lawyer argued.
Instead, the government pegged its case on Jabateh’s perpetuation of those lies in a 2011 oral interview with an immigration agent — a theory of the case that the appellate judges found was not supported by the law.
The fact that the judges, despite that finding, let the convictions stand is troubling, said Goldberger, Jabateh’s attorney. Had they overturned them, leaving only Jabateh’s conviction on two counts of perjury, his prison term could have been reduced by as much as 20 years.
“Cases like this are a test of whether our system will keep its promise of equal justice under the law,” Goldberger said.
Still, the appellate court found that the judge who oversaw his trial, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, was well within his discretion to impose the stiff punishment he did.
At the time, Diamond described the 15-to-21-month sentence recommended by federal sentencing guidelines as “outrageously offensive” in light of Jabateh’s wartime conduct. But he stressed that the 30-year prison term he delivered was not based on the horrific atrocities Jabateh committed but rather the egregiousness of the lies he told, “making a mockery” of the U.S. asylum system that has been set up to protect people fleeing from human rights abusers like himself.
“The sentence was ultimately based,” the Third Circuit panel wrote Tuesday, “on the seriousness of [Jabateh’s] lies and their effect on the asylum and immigration process.”