Liberian found guilty of war crimes-linked charges in “historic” US case

Liberian found guilty of war crimes-linked charges in “historic” US case©CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP​
Fighters loyal to Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) shout insults to rival Krahn fighters of the United Liberation Movement (ULIMO-J) in Monrovia 11 May 1996.
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A court in Philadelphia on Wednesday found Mohammed Jabbateh (“Jungle Jabbah”) guilty of charges related to atrocities committed during the first Liberian civil war (1989-96). His two-week trial was the first time that Liberian war victims were able to testify in a public and fair trial, according to Swiss-based NGO Civitas Maxima, which has been monitoring the case.

The jury of 12 in Philadelphia found Jabbateh guilty on two counts of fraud and two counts of perjury for lying to US officials about his background as a combatant in Liberia. Jabbateh was a commander of the ULIMO rebel group which fought against forces of former president Charles Taylor in Liberia.

He faces up to 30 years in jail. No date was set for sentencing, but it is expected within the next few months.

In order to prove that Jabbateh entered the United States and obtained asylum under false pretences, prosecutors had to demonstrate that he was a high-ranking ULIMO commander and committed atrocities during the Liberian civil war. They brought 20 witnesses from Liberia who testified about horrific acts committed by Jabbateh and his soldiers, including cannibalism, rape, murder and slavery, according to Civitas Maxima.

Civitas Maxima says it and its partner organization in Monrovia, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), “have collaborated since 2014 with US authorities on the investigation of crimes Jabbateh allegedly committed in Liberia”. 

“This is the first verdict giving some measure of redress to Liberian victims who have been yearning for justice for too long,” said GJRP director Hassan Bility in Monrovia. “This case shows that Liberians do not have to accept the status quo of impunity in Liberia.” 

Bility, a former journalist who was tortured under Charles Taylor, also thanked the Liberian media for their wide coverage of the case, despite ongoing elections in the country. 

Impunity in Liberia 

Liberia’s first civil war left some 150,000 civilians dead amid terrible atrocities by each warring faction in the conflict. As Civitas Maxima director Alain Werner said in a recent interview with JusticeInfo, there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia which called in 2009 for criminal prosecutions, but so far there have been no war crimes prosecutions in the country. 

There have, however, been some prosecutions outside Liberia. Charles Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and is currently serving a 50-year jail sentence in the UK. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed not in Liberia but in neighbouring, diamond-rich Sierra Leone. 

Charles Taylor’s son ''Chuckie'' Taylor was sentenced by a US court in 2009 to 97 years in jail for torture under his father’s rule. 

Civitas Maxima has helped get the arrest of former Liberian rebel commander Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland, Agnes Reeves Taylor in the UK and Martina Johnson in Belgium on war crimes and torture charges. Werner hopes for trials next year. “We don’t think the political climate is right for war crimes trials in Liberia now,” he told JusticeInfo. “But the first place in which they should be happening, when the climate is right, is of course in the country itself.  

“Victims want justice and we will continue to support them in their pursuit of accountability within and outside of Liberia,” says Hassan Bility in Monrovia.