A Delaware County man convicted of hiding his past as the murderous Liberian warlord "Jungle Jabbah" was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison Thursday – a historic punishment that prosecutors touted Thursday as one of the longest ever given to an accused war criminal convicted of immigration fraud in the United States.
Before then, no one had even been prosecuted in connection with the conflict that left more than 250,000 dead and a generation of survivors both in Liberia and Philadelphia's sizable expat community clamoring for justice.
Although Jabateh's sentence Thursday was not specifically tied to any of the dozens of acts of murder, rape, enslavement, and cannibalism that prosecutors attributed to him, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond said those deeds factored heavily into his decision to dramatically depart from the traditional federal sentencing guidelines for perjury and immigration fraud, the charges on which Jabateh was convicted last year.
In handing down the sentence, Diamond described the prison term suggested by those guidelines – 15 to 21 months – as not only "unreasonable but outrageously offensive" in light of Jabateh's wartime conduct.
However, "I want to be clear," Diamond cautioned. "I am departing not based on the horror of the atrocities the defendant committed abroad. Rather, I am departing based on the egregiousness of his lies … and their effect on our asylum laws and immigration system."
For his part, Jabateh – the owner of an international shipping business and the father of 13 children in the United States and Africa — said nothing throughout the hearing, staring blankly ahead as Diamond ticked off a list of his misdeeds.
When it came time to address the judge, he leaned forward slightly and spoke softly into the microphone: "Your Honor, sir, I have nothing to say."
Within minutes of his removal from the courtroom in handcuffs, reactions poured in from the Philadelphia region and from across the Atlantic.
"The atrocities committed by Mohammed Jabateh are so horrific that they are almost beyond belief," U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said. "For his surviving victims and the family members of those he brutally murdered, we hope this sentence offers some measure of comfort."
In Liberia's capital, Monrovia, Hassan Bility, director of the Monrovia-based nonprofit Global Justice and Research Project, echoed that sentiment.
"Liberian victims have been waiting for more than 15 years to see their perpetrators held accountable," he said in a statement, calling Jabateh's conviction and sentence "a testament to the unwavering commitment and resilience of the victims who are making their voices heard not only within Liberia but also globally."
None of the 17 Liberians whom the U.S. Justice Department flew in from Africa to testify against Jabateh last fall attended Thursday's proceedings. But their presence was keenly felt.
When asked at trial to identify the man responsible for their torment, each offered the same answer, identifying Jabateh by his nom de guerre, "Jungle Jabbah."
One woman testified she had been captured and turned into a sex slave at 13, being raped daily for weeks until she managed to escape. A farmer from Liberia's northwest mining country detailed how he had been forced into slavery and ordered to dig for diamonds on threat of death, to fund Jabateh's war effort.
And in perhaps the most wrenching testimony of the 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 with orders to cook it for Jabateh and his men.
"When one tries to describe the atrocities – the horror and the terror and the brutality — committed by Mohammed Jabateh, it's tempting, almost unavoidable, to resort to phrases like indescribable," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer said in court Thursday. "But we know that [those] shocking atrocities can be described. We heard them because of the incredible courage of those Liberian witnesses."
Coverage in Liberian newspapers has described the case in totemic terms that extend beyond Jabateh and the crimes he committed, wondering if it might signal an end to the impunity the nation's war criminals have enjoyed for many years.
The nation's former president, Charles Taylor, was convicted of war crimes by an international court in 2012 – but for actions tied to a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. It took a U.S. court to sentence his son – known as "Chuckie" Taylor – to prison in 2009 for his own barbaric behavior in a second civil war that roiled Liberia between 1999 and 2003.
Some former rebel leaders still hold positions of power in the government in Monrovia, and the ethnic divisions that fueled the wars still divide the nation.
Jabateh maintained that he, too, was a victim — of Taylor's autocratic regime. After fleeing to the U.S. in 1998, he obtained political asylum, claiming he had been imprisoned and tortured by the president's forces.
It was in filling out forms for that immigration process that Jabateh told the lies about his wartime past that ultimately landed him in court.
His lawyer, Greg Pagano, argued Thursday that even though a jury convicted Jabateh for that deception, the judge should not conclude that the panel was necessarily convinced that he had committed all of the atrocities of which he was accused.
But Linwood C. Wright Jr., Thayer's co-counsel, said that no matter what the jurors intended, their verdict meant much to those who suffered at Jabateh's hands.
"It's true that he was sentenced for the crimes that he committed in this country, but it's not lost on [his victims] that accountability is accountability," Wright said Thursday.
As for the chance for Liberians to one day obtain justice in their native country for war crimes committed there, Thayer said: "That reckoning must be left to another court and another day."