A Delaware County man accused of hiding his past as a murderous Liberian warlord was convicted Wednesday on federal immigration fraud charges — a historic verdict that resonated from Philadelphia's sizable community of West African expats to the Liberian capital of Monrovia thousands of miles away.
Mohammed Jabateh, a 51-year-old father of five and owner of a Philadelphia-based international shipping company, is the first person found guilty of crimes tied to the numerous documented atrocities that occurred during the protracted, multi-faction civil war that ravaged Liberia between 1989 and 1997. Until now, no one had even been prosecuted in connection with that conflict, which left more than 250,000 dead in a nation no larger than Tennessee.
Jabateh was not specifically charged with any of the dozens of acts of murder, rape, enslavement, and cannibalism that government witnesses attributed to him and to rebel soldiers under his command. But federal prosecutors in Philadelphia and human-rights advocates claimed victory in the jury's decision to convict him of lying about those misdeeds while seeking political asylum in the United States.
"We hope that there's a measure of justice, not only for the violation of our laws but also in Liberia for those that have been victimized," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright, who prosecuted the case along with co-counsel Nelson Thayer.
Across the Atlantic, Hassan Bility, director of the Monrovia-based nonprofit Global Justice and Research Project, echoed that sentiment. His organization helped U.S. investigators identify many of the men and women who testified against Jabateh at trial.
"This case shows that Liberians do not have to accept the status quo of impunity in Liberia," Bility said in a statement. "Victims want justice and we will continue to support them in their pursuit of accountability within and outside of Liberia. … This is only the beginning."
In keeping with his stoic behavior throughout the trial, Jabateh showed little reaction when the verdict was read just after 1 p.m. Wednesday. As he was handcuffed to be led back to prison, he pursed his lips, stared at jurors, and gave a nod to a small crowd of supporters.
His wife, Nafisa Saeed, however, did not mince words, telling reporters she was not surprised by the outcome of the case.
"I don't think the process was fair," she said. "It was the superpower of the Earth against one man."
Her frustration was shared by a large crowd of friends and relatives outside the courthouse. Many had horrific stories about their own wartime experiences. Nearly all alleged that Jabateh's accusers were so eager to hold anyone accountable for their brutalization that they framed an innocent man.
Yet none of the 17 Liberians whom the U.S. Justice Department flew in from Africa for the eight-day trial hesitated when asked during their testimony who was responsible for their brutal treatment. 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, only to be 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.
Jabateh's lawyer, Greg Pagano, asked each why they had not reported any of their claims to authorities in the two decades since the war.
"Who am I gonna tell?" one witness scoffed. "Nobody. I didn't tell any local official, because they couldn't do nothing about it."
That sense of unanswered grievance hung over the case from the day when federal agents arrested Jabateh at his East Lansdowne home in March 2016. Coverage in Liberian newspapers described the case in totemic terms that extended far beyond Jabateh and the crimes he committed, wondering if it might signal an end to the impunity the nation's war criminals had enjoyed for so 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 now hold positions of power within the government in Monrovia, and the ethnic divisions that fueled the wars still divide Liberians — even among the estimated 15,000 now living in the Philadelphia region.
Jabateh maintained that he, too, was a victim — of Taylor's autocratic regime. After fleeing to the United States in 1997, he sought and obtained political asylum, claiming that he had been imprisoned and tortured by the president's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
But in a series of recent cases — including two others against Philadelphia-area residents — the U.S. Justice Department has trumpeted its own commitment to tracking down and expelling West African war criminals now living in this country.
In 2014, Homeland Security Investigations agents arrested former Taylor spokesman Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, now 71, at his home in Collingdale in an immigration fraud case. And federal prosecutors in New York have accused Isaac Kannah, of Philadelphia, of committing perjury while testifying about his wartime actions in another case. Both men await trial.
"The United States will not be a safe haven for human rights violators and war criminals," Marlon Miller, special agent in charge of HSI's Philadelphia field office, said in a statement after Wednesday's verdict. "[We] will continue to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that those who have committed such acts abroad never evade justice and accountability for their crimes by hiding among their victims in the United States."
U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond has not set a sentencing date for Jabateh, who faces up to 30 years in prison and all but certain deportation after he completes his prison term.
But Pagano, his lawyer, said he would not rule out an appeal.
"We disagree with the jury's verdict," Pagano said as he left the courthouse Wednesday. "But we of course accept it and respect it. We're going to prepare for sentencing."