A US Immigration Case Offers a Rare Day in Court for Victims of Liberian War Crimes

A US Immigration Case Offers a Rare Day in Court for Victims of Liberian War Crimes

A US Immigration Case Offers a Rare Day in Court for Victims of Liberian War Crimes

Gruesome details of Liberia’s civil wars emerge from a Philadelphia courtroom.


Emmanuel Nimley first met Mohammed Jabbateh, a warlord known as Jungle Jabbah, on a bridge outside Monrovia, the Liberian capital. It was the dry season of 1992, during a stalemate in Liberia’s first civil war, which would ultimately kill tens of thousands of people.

At the time, Nimley was operating a successful transport company, and Jabbateh, a commander in the ULIMO rebel group, had sent aides to Nimley’s office with a business proposition. He wanted to know if Nimley would make some of his trucks available to the rebels to move rubber from western Liberia, where Jabbateh’s forces held territory, to the Monrovia port.

In a war that was already turning Liberia into a byword for wanton brutality, the ULIMO fighters, and Jabbateh in particular, stood out as especially fearsome, reportedly committing all manner of killings, torture, and sexual violence. Their ranks included a number of “heartmen,” a term referring to perpetrators of ritual killings who sometimes extracted, cooked, and ate the hearts of their victims, believing this would bring them strength. Nimley, familiar with such stories, had no interest in going into business with them, and initially tried to decline Jabbateh’s offer. But Jabbateh’s men insisted that Nimley speak with their boss directly.

Their meeting was scheduled on a bridge over the Po River, in a buffer zone between the capital and rebel territory. When Nimley arrived, he looked across and saw Jabbateh, with his trademark short dreadlocks, for the first time. A Nigerian peacekeeper posted at the crossing warned Nimley, “I guarantee your safety to this point. If you cross that bridge and anything happens to you, you’re on your own.” Nimley hesitated, but decided to walk on after seeing Jabbateh set down his AK-47. “I did martial arts,” he said. “Me, I can defend myself.”

That initial encounter formed the basis of a partnership that would span two continents and more than 10 years. For several months, Nimley transported rubber for ULIMO, taking a cut for himself once the trucks reached Monrovia. Jabbateh promised to keep the trucks safe, and somehow, despite the chaos of the war, he kept his word.

The two men fell out of contact after Nimley, wary of a new wave of violence threatening Monrovia, fled the country. About 10 years later, though, they were reunited just outside Philadelphia, where there is a sizable Liberian diaspora community. One day, in a loading yard where Nimley was working, his old partner came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. “He said, ‘You know me, it’s Jungle.’ I said, ‘Jabbateh!’ We embraced each other,” Nimley recalled.

Nimley had, since arriving in Philadelphia, founded a business that sent shipping containers to West Africa, and Jabbateh asked Nimley to teach him the trade. Nimley agreed. Though the two men did not grow especially close, they maintained their cordial professional relationship, and Nimley observed as Jabbateh, his combat days behind him, quietly went about establishing a life for himself and his family in America.

For nearly two decades, Jabbateh managed to keep sufficient distance between himself and his past. Last year, however, on April 13, federal officials unsealed an indictment accusing him of immigration fraud and perjury. The indictment contended that Jabbateh provided false information about his wartime conduct when he applied for asylum in 1998, and later when he went for a green card. Specifically, Jabbateh did not disclose that he was a rebel commander, and responded in the negative when asked if he had ever committed a crime or harmed anyone. The charges carried a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

Hearings in the case were held in October in US District Court in Philadelphia. Even before they began, it was clear the trial would extend far beyond what Jabbateh did or did not say to immigration officials. In order to show that Jabbateh lied, prosecutors had to show what Jabbateh did during his days as a rebel commander, and that meant calling to the stand nearly two dozen witnesses, many of them flown in from Liberia.

The trial, then, provided a rare opportunity for stories from Liberia’s period of civil conflict—made up of two separate wars lasting from 1989 to 2003—to be entered into the legal record. Back home, Liberia’s political class has successfully resisted prosecutions, meaning those whose wartime atrocities are well-documented live unbothered and, in some cases, very comfortable lives. There are a few notable exceptions. Former President Charles Taylor, whose invasion in 1989 kicked off the first war, is serving a 50-year sentence in the UK for war crimes and crimes against humanity, though his trial concerned his role in the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor’s son, Chucky, an American citizen, was convicted in 2008 under US anti-torture laws for crimes committed in Liberia, including as head of the Taylor regime’s notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit. More recently, several Liberians have been arrested in European countries that embrace universal jurisdiction. In general, though, nearly 15 years after the fighting ended, the search for justice in Liberia has been almost singularly thankless and unsuccessful.

For this reason, Nimley was of two minds about Jabbateh’s arrest. While he worried about the fate of a man who had been a steady source of business, and who had always treated him fairly, he said he believed any effort to make Liberian war criminals answer for the hardship they caused could only be a good thing. “I tell you the truth, I pray each day for them to be brought to justice, because the people they killed in cold blood, they’ve got to get their pay,” he said. “If you killed somebody, come on, man, you’ve got to be able to go to court and face the full weight of the law. You can’t just kill somebody and walk in impunity, you go around the country, as if you’ve done something great.”

When he arrived in the United States nearly two decades ago, Jabbateh presented himself to US officials as a victim of the same type of crimes he and his fighters are accused of committing, invoking Liberia’s peculiar history to make his case.

Liberia was founded in the mid-1800s by formerly enslaved African Americans who, backed by the American Colonization Society, traveled to West Africa to establish a new home. A profound cleavage has always existed within Liberia between these new arrivals and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, and so-called native Liberians.

In 1980, Samuel K. Doe became the first person from outside the Americo-Liberian elite to rule when he took power in a coup. Jabbateh’s family, native Liberians from the Mandingo ethnic group, backed the coup and Doe’s government, making them vulnerable, Jabbateh said, when Charles Taylor launched his campaign to topple it.

According to an early statement Jabbateh gave to immigration officials, his family tried to flee in advance of Taylor’s fighters, heading toward the Sierra Leone border. Jabbateh said they were not fast enough, however, and he described hiding in the bush as his mother and brother were shot and killed.

After making it to Sierra Leone, Jabbateh said, he joined up with ULIMO—a force whose goal, as he saw it, was to protect Mandingos and other persecuted ethnic groups and “bring democracy to Liberia.” Inexplicably, Jabbateh’s narrative led to him working as a bodyguard with the elite Special Security Services unit at the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, the traditional presidential residence.

In presenting their case, the prosecution devoted considerable energy to disputing this last claim. Along with submitting photographs of Jabbateh from the war, they called multiple witnesses who described how he sported dreadlocks and combat fatigues, a look that never would have flown at the mansion. The former director of the Special Security Services unit told the court that all members had to wear a blue uniform or a coat and tie and have their hair cut short. Like others who spent considerable time at the mansion, this man said he never saw Jabbateh there.

That’s because, according to other witnesses, Jabbateh was actually upcountry, overseeing and participating in horrific violence. In describing what they saw and suffered through firsthand, these witnesses, speaking sometimes through tears and sometimes through an interpreter tasked with making Liberian English intelligible to American ears, gave the lie to the notion that Jabbateh was a bit player in the abuses attributed to ULIMO and ULIMO-K, the faction Jabbateh joined when ULIMO split in 1994.

When Jabbateh’s fighters took over a village, witnesses said, they sent men to go work in diamond and gold mines, while women became sex slaves. One woman described how, when her village was captured, Jabbateh told her, “You will be with me tonight, and you will be my woman.” She told the court she was forced to sleep with him two or three times per day, fearing he would harm her if she refused.

The next witness, a woman who was raped by another ULIMO member, recounted how Jabbateh’s fighters brought a man before him one day, claiming he was a spy. This witness said Jabbateh personally ordered the fighters to kill the man so that, together, they could eat his heart. “They cooked it and cut it into pieces and shared it among the soldiers so they could eat it that day,” the witness said, adding that Jabbateh threatened to kill any soldier who didn’t partake. At other times, villagers were forced to prepare the hearts of their loved ones for consumption. One woman, fighting back tears, told the court how Jabbateh’s men told her she would be killed if she didn’t make a fire and boil the heart of her husband, who had been killed minutes before.

The jury heard multiple references to the practice of tying prisoners in the style known as duck fa tabae, in which victims’ arms were bound behind their back so tightly their elbows touched. One man who complained about the pain this caused said Jabbateh ordered his fighters to kill him. When the man begged for his life, Jabbateh had his fighters slice off his ear instead.

And then there was the witness who described what Jabbateh did to her sister, the girlfriend of a combatant from the Krahn tribe. When the girlfriend, who was four months pregnant, told Jabbateh she didn’t know where this other man was, Jabbateh inserted a pistol into her vagina and pulled the trigger. The witness broke down sobbing as she described watching her sister writhe on the ground and die.

Such stories are not unusual in Liberia; when survivors of the war years recount them, they are often drawing from personal memories. Though the guilt of the perpetrators is not as widespread as the suffering they caused, there is plenty of it to go around, including among the diaspora. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex L. Dennis, a Liberian who’s been in the Philadelphia region for almost as long as Jabbateh. “There’s a lot of them in town here who were one way or the other involved in this whole Liberian civil war.”

Not all combatants enjoyed Jabbateh’s seniority and notoriety, to be sure. But there is a widespread belief among the Philadelphia-area diaspora that others could be similarly vulnerable to prosecution. One of the biggest questions surrounding the trial was why Jabbateh, of all possible candidates, had been targeted by US law enforcement. In his closing statement, defense lawyer Gregory J. Pagano seized on this uncertainty to suggest that the case was tainted. He told jurors that witnesses could have been motivated to testify by war-related wounds that were “still open, still bleeding”—lingering anti-Mandingo sentiment, for example, or a desire to see anyone affiliated with ULIMO be punished. “There’s no greater motive than revenge,” he said. “There’s nothing sweeter or better, especially where people were mortal enemies and trying to kill each other.”

In the end, though, the notion that others could be just as guilty as Jabbateh may have weakened his case, as those who might have spoken out in his defense opted instead to stay quiet. Despite calls for pro-Jabbateh protests in the run-up to the hearings, these never materialized. And the actual defense case was fairly muted, limited to 10 character witnesses who were sworn in all together, meaning their individual relationships to Jabbateh were not disclosed. These witnesses agreed to a statement—read out by Pagano as they stood silent—saying simply that they knew Jabbateh, and knew others who had also interacted with him. If asked, the statement said, they would describe him as a “peaceful, nonviolent, law-abiding person.”

On October 18, the court announced that Jabbateh had been found guilty on two counts of fraud and two counts of perjury. Sentencing is expected in January. The court has the authority to impose a prison term ranging anywhere from time served to 30 years, after which Jabbateh will likely be deported to Liberia, where it is doubtful he would face any additional punishment.

Advocates for justice for Liberia’s war victims hailed the decision as a milestone. “This is the first verdict giving some measure of redress to Liberian victims who have been yearning for justice for too long,” said Hassan Bility, director of the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project, a group that, along with the Geneva-based organization Civitas Maxima, collaborated with US authorities on the Jabbateh investigation. “This case shows that Liberians do not have to accept the status quo of impunity in Liberia.”

Even though they unfolded thousands of miles away, the proceedings generated considerable interest back home, thanks in no small part to Liberian journalists who traveled to Philadelphia to cover them. Tetee Gebro, a prominent journalist working for the radio station of the UN Mission in Liberia, said each video she posted online received thousands of views and comments. “We didn’t even understand how important this case was to Liberians until we started reporting on it,” she said. A “Quest for Justice” campaign organized by Civitas Maxima also helped raise awareness.

Soon enough, however, news of the verdict was drowned out by the domestic story of the day: the still-undecided race to succeed Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose second and final term is winding down. The election was being billed as an opportunity for the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Liberia since well before the war.

The initial field of 20 presidential candidates included several who endorsed domestic war-crimes prosecutions; Bility said this position was “the new way of popularizing oneself.” But by the day of the verdict, the first round of voting was over, and a runoff was planned between Vice President Joseph Boakai and former soccer star George Weah, neither of whom has made justice issues a priority. The runoff has been delayed because of complaints about irregularities in the first round, but regardless of who wins, it is difficult to imagine a full reckoning with past crimes taking place in Liberia anytime soon.

This means that, for the time being, Liberians hoping for justice will have to put their faith in developments overseas. In addition to Jabbateh, trials are pending against Martina Johnson, a commander under Charles Taylor who was arrested in Belgium in 2014 and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity; Alieu Kosiah, a ULIMO commander who was arrested that same year in Switzerland; and Agnes Reeves Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor who was charged with torture this year by British authorities. There may also soon be another trial in Philadelphia: In 2014, federal officials unsealed an indictment accusing Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, a Taylor-era defense minister, of lying on his US citizenship application; he is currently under house arrest.

Nimley, Jabbateh’s former business partner, is in favor of these proceedings, just as he supported the case against Jabbateh. At the same time, he believes they must be paired with trials in Liberia. “That’s the only way genuine peace will come,” he said.

Until that happens, Liberia will remain the most reliable sanctuary for those accused of atrocities on its soil. The irony is not lost on Liberians, both at home and abroad. As Philip E.P. Woods II, a Liberian who once worked alongside Jabbateh in Philadelphia, put it, “If Jungle Jabbah knew he was going to be arrested, all he would have done was just get in the plane and go to Monrovia and walk scot free.”

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