Is ‘Jungle Jabbah’ a ruthless killer or vendetta victim? Two portraits emerge in Delco man’s trial

Listen 2:22
A man walks past the federal courthouse in Philadelphia

The federal courthouse in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If federal prosecutors are to be believed, Liberian-born Mohammed Jabbateh promoted falsehoods two decades ago when he concealed his past as a rebel commander who committed atrocious war crimes, in hopes that would allow him to stay in the Philadelphia area.

Defense lawyers for Jabbateh, 51, of Delaware County, contend the government has collected witnesses who are are fabricating stories of heinous acts to punish a member of a rival Liberian tribe.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers launched opening statements Tuesday in federal court in Philadelphia in the trial of the onetime Liberian rebel commander — now a suburban businessman — who denies charges that he committed fraud and lied under oath to U.S. immigration officials by covering up his role in the first Liberian civil war.

It will be up to the eight women and four men on the jury to determine which side is most convincing as they’re asked to decide whether Jabbateh will face lengthy prison time over how he filled out immigration documents some two decades ago.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“These lies he repeated to the faces of immigration officers who placed him under oath and interviewed him when he applied for asylum and, later, when he applied for a green card,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer told jurors Tuesday.

Defense lawyer Gregory Pagano told the court that the prosecution’s case against Jabbateh began with a tip from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a rival rebel group led by former president Charles Taylor, opposed to Jabbateh’s United Liberation Movement for Democracy Liberia rebel group.

And so, witnesses the prosecution plans to call who also have ties to the rival faction are not credible, Pagano insisted.

“All of these people,” Pagano said, “have political or tribal or religious motives to testify against a former ULIMO commander.”

Jabbateh, known in Liberia as “Jungle Jabbah,” came to the U.S. on a visitor’s visa in 1998, shortly after the end of Liberia’s first civil war. He later told immigration officials in his asylum application that he was a member of the Mandingo tribe, having previously worked as a bodyguard with the Liberian equivalent of the Secret Service in the capital city Monrovia, Thayer said. Under Taylor’s rule, Mandingos were subject to persecution.

A year later, federal officials granted his asylum application. Since then, he has lived in the Philadelphia area. Jabbateh has five children with his fiancee in Lansdowne and seven children with another woman in Africa.

Thayer told jurors the government is charging Jabbateh because his asylum request was approved based on falsehoods.

Litany of atrocities alleged

Prosecutors maintain Jabbateh concealed his role as a commander in the Zebra Battalion, a branch of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy, a rebel group that human rights watchers have linked to a long list of humanitarian crimes.

As a high-ranking member of the group, Thayer said, Jabbateh and his fellow soldiers pillaged the hills of Western Liberia, preying on innocent gold and diamond miners, farmers and other civilians with ferocious violence. On multiple occasions, Jabbateh and others in the rebel group killed their enemies so they could boil and eat their hearts.

“He looted, raped, mutilated, murdered and even committed ritual cannibalism against the villagers that they attacked,” Thayer told the jury. “Mohammed Jabbateh ordered the women of the villages, some barely teenagers, to become sex slaves for his fighters. If any of those women refused, the penalty was death.”

Jabbateh is not being prosecuted over his alleged role as a war criminal; he is facing immigration fraud and perjury charges for lying under oath to federal immigration officials by allegedly covering up his violent history.

If the jury convicts Jabbateh of all counts after what could be a four-week trial, he could be facing decades behind bars.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have indicated that Jabbateh will be deported regardless of the verdict — either after an acquittal or following any prison time imposed by the judge after a conviction.

“You can’t commit heinous war crimes in your home country and come to this country and try to stay here and lie about those crimes,” Thayer said.

Liberian witnesses unreliable, defense says

To investigate Jabbateh’s history, Pagano told jurors, federal investigators went to Liberia for weeks to interview villagers and search for potential witnesses.

The civil wars in Liberia that raged for 14 years concluded in 2003. But Jabbateh’s alleged atrocities described by prosecutors in the charging documents occurred between 1992 and 1995, which meant authorities had to find witnesses to testify about events from more than two decades ago.

“Interestingly, these witnesses did not tell anyone until the federal government came to Liberia and started interviewing them,” Pagano said. “We’re talking 15, 20 years post incident,” Pagano said. “What a reasonable person would ask is, ‘Where were these people? Where were these complaints 15, 20 years ago?’

“It’s when the U.S. government comes to town, when the world’s superpower comes to town, that these allegations come about.”

Pagano offered no explanation in his opening remarks for why Jabbateh professed to be a member of Liberia’s Secret Service on some of his immigration documents.

But Pagano did emphasize that prosecutors are overplaying his client’s childhood nickname as a way of feeding into the image of a brutal warlord.

“This is not a war moniker, as the government wants you to think. This is a nickname he had many, many years before that,” Pagano said of the nickname “Jungle Jabbah.”

Widely watched trial

Nushin Sarkarati, a lawyer who represents victims of mass atrocities at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, has been watching the trial. There remain no avenues for justice in Liberia for survivors of the country’s civil wars, she said.

But the trial is also symbolic for Liberians who have emigrated to the U.S., about 15,000 of whom now reside in the Philadelphia area.

“The only time we can see these individuals being prosecuted is in the United States or a foreign country where these laws are available, so it’s very important that these cases proceed,” Sarkarati said. “Many, many Liberians came to the United States as refugees, and they have a rightful claim as refugees here. Those victims do not deserve to live amongst the perpetrators.”

Many in Liberia are following the day-to-day courtroom action closely. Journalist TeTee Gabro traveled to Philadelphia from Monrovia to cover the trial.

“One thing I know in Liberia is that the vast majority of people believe that people who have committed atrocities must pay for their actions — this is something that a lot of people think should happen — so what we had during the war in the country will not repeat itself,” Garbo said. “So this trial has much significance to Liberia as a country and people who follow people from Liberia.”

On Tuesday, the government called a photojournalist who covered the civil war in Liberia who testified about the veracity of various photographs of Jabbateh; some show him sporting fashionable dark glasses among a phalanx of fellow soldiers.

Prosecutors also called on a Liberian woman who claims Jabbateh captured her in her village, forced her to be his wife and made her his sex slave.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal