The jury knew her only as Witness 18. The woman, dressed in the colorful traditional garb of rural Liberia from where she had come, said the man on trial was not an entrepreneur living quietly in Southwest Philadelphia, as he claimed. Rather, she told the court, Mohammed Jabbateh was “Jungle Jabbah,” a ruthless militant commander responsible for barbarous war crimes committed decades ago.
In chilling testimony here last fall, the woman, now in her 60s, recounted how Jabbateh had invaded her village in 1991. After killing her brother-in-law by removing his heart, she said, Jabbateh’s fighters did the same to her husband – and then ordered her to cook the organ so they could eat it. “Make yourself strong ma,” she remembered one of them saying as he urged her to build a fire. “If you don’t do it, he’ll kill us both.”
Jabbateh, 51, was convicted in October, not for committing war crimes in Liberia but for lying to investigators in the United States about his violent past and defrauding the U.S. immigration system in the process. He faces up to 30 years in prison, and it is expected that he’ll be deported from the United States eventually. A judge is scheduled to announce Jabbateh’s fate at a hearing Thursday.
Should he receive the maximum sentence, it would represent one of the toughest penalties ever handed down by a U.S. court for a case involving war crimes. The Department of Homeland Security, which enforces the country’s immigration laws, has 1,900 open cases on people thought to be living in the United States with a record of alleged human rights abuses, but fewer than 20 suspects are arrested each year – and only one has been litigated by a U.S. court since laws were put in place to prosecute what the U.S. government deems substantive abuses, including torture, genocide and other atrocities.
The Justice Department says it is committed to prosecuting those suspected of such abuses who seek a haven in the United States “when the evidence and the law support criminal charges.” But there is a growing sense among human rights advocates that more must be done – and that the worst may be yet to come.
“No one should be surprised if, in the future, veterans of ISIS or the Rohingya massacres slip by U.S. immigration with ease and live happily in Florida, immune from any prosecution for crimes against humanity,” said David Scheffer, ambassador at large for war crimes issues during the Clinton administration. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State. The Rohingya Muslims are a minority group whose targeting by the Burmese military has been widely condemned.
Jabbateh fled to the United States in 1998 along with thousands of Liberians seeking refuge from a devastating civil war that spanned 14 years and left 250,000 dead. He married, started a family and launched a shipping business, winning asylum from the U.S. government and, eventually, permanent residence.
Fellow Liberians who settled in Philadelphia recognized Jabbateh – and the handful of other suspected ex-militants who live here – and took umbrage at seeing them benefit from the opportunities – for employment, for education, for health care – that were nonexistent in their homeland after the instability they created.
“People had to be careful,” said Massa Washington, a former commissioner on Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noting the fear many still harbor and concern about retaliation. “Most of these guys still have structures in place back home even if they’re inactive for now. You never really know. Because of the viciousness of the war. People think if I point out this guy here my mother is back home, my brother is back home, my child is back home.”
There were other considerations, too. Many Liberians living in the United States were granted provisional residency – what the government calls temporary protected status, or TPS – because of threats they faced at home. Those mindful of their vulnerability worried about the possible consequences of reporting Jabbateh and other suspected militants to U.S. authorities. This concern has only grown during the Trump administration, which has mounted an aggressive effort to reduce immigration to the United States and recently ended TPS for the thousands of Liberians living here.
When Homeland Security was notified about Jabbateh in 2013, officials there contacted the Justice Department, which has struggled to prosecute such cases. With most dating back years, credible evidence and witnesses can be hard to find, and American juries often lack much context about foreign wars.
To overcome these challenges, many countries have established specialized war crimes units that are funded to sustain long trials and staffed with historians and regional experts. In the United States, that unit is the Human Rights Special Prosecutions Section.
Human rights activists say the office routinely rejects cases, and citing the comparatively high record of success among the unit’s European counterparts, which prosecute dozens of war crimes cases each year, they’ve labeled the unit risk-averse and ineffective. The one case it litigated under the human rights statutes dates back to 2009. Last year alone, European courts brought 51 cases involving alleged war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity, according to a report by Trial International, which provides legal assistance to victims of such abuses.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on human rights and the law, advocated for the statutes Congress enacted years ago meant to make it easier for the government to prosecute war crimes. He has voiced displeasure with the prosecution unit’s leadership over its apparent inaction, an aide said.
Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the scrutiny beyond saying that the unit has been “aggressive” in pursuing leads and “stands ready to use additional statutory tools where appropriate.”
In Jabbateh’s case, the unit participated in the investigation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania but eventually declined to move forward. It’s unclear why. People familiar with the matter have suggested that officials found potential witnesses to be unpersuasive, but Navasdisputed that, saying that while she would not discuss this specific case, the unit does not always “need to be co-prosecuting cases.”
Linwood Wright and Nelson Thayer, both assistant U.S. attorneys in Philadelphia, were determined to try the case. Each has considerable international experience. Thayer, for instance, spent six years prosecuting Bosnian Serb commanders for genocide.
“With the Jabbateh case,” Nelson said, “I found myself getting emotional every morning before going into court. When you spend the amount of time that we have with these witnesses and hear what happened to them, you feel a responsibility to do everything you can to see a just result happen.”
Along with Homeland Security investigator Mark Gilland, they made 10 trips to Liberia. At trial, witnesses flown in from Liberia told the jury of child soldiers, murder, and public rape and torture at the hands of Jabbateh and his fighters. The jury of mostly middle-aged white Philadelphians, many of its members visibly unsettled by the gruesome accounts they heard, required only a few hours of deliberation to convict Jabbateh.
The prosecution unit’s defenders argue that it is hamstrung by continuing weakness in U.S. law. Indeed, despite Jabbateh’s alleged war crimes, it was never clear that they fell under existing U.S. statutes, as those passed at Durbin’s urging cover only a fraction of the crimes that can be prosecuted in other countries. A broader bill, the 2010 Crimes Against Humanity Act, died in the Senate amid concern from the Defense Department and intelligence community that by prosecuting crimes committed on foreign soil, the United States would risk encouraging lawsuits against Americans in response.
The Justice Department says that deportation in itself is a severe penalty and that, ideally, those accused of crimes against humanity will be tried in their home countries. Human rights activists view this logic skeptically, pointing to the case of George Boley, one of the leaders of Liberia’s rebel factions, who was deported in 2012. Liberia’s president at that time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, defied pressure to convene a war crimes court. Last year, Boley was elected to the country’s parliament.
“The U.S. is overdue for a public debate about our current policy on war crimes,” said Scott Gilmore, staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Prosecutors are trapped between a limited legal toolkit and a politically fraught environment.”
The debate will ratchet up again in June with the Eastern District’s next immigration fraud trial. The defendant is Thomas Woewiyu, a longtime ally and defense minister of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president and warlord serving 50 years in a British prison for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.
For now, here in the Philadelphia neighborhood known as “Little Liberia,” there is a rare sense that justice has been served, and that at least one tormentor will be held accountable.