Around 9 o’clock the morning of April 13, Mohammed Jabbateh was fast asleep in his bed in Lansdowne, Delaware County, when someone knocked on the door of his modest twin home.
“We didn’t know it was [federal agents],” said his wife, Nafisa Saeed. “They just barged in the bedroom and arrested him.”
Later, they sat Saeed down and explained that they believed her husband had committed war crimes.
“That’s not him,” she said. “The Mohammed I know is not like that.”
‘No safe haven’
Federal authorities had picked up 49-year-old Jabbateh as a part of the work of the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, a post-9/11 creation of U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The tagline that the center uses for their work is that the United States will not serve as a safe haven for people who have participated in human rights violations overseas,” said Jenn Elzea, interim press secretary for ICE.
Historians and investigators at the center look at whether people coming to — or living in — the United States committed crimes abroad. To date, the center’s work has led to 360 arrests of suspected or confirmed war criminals, according to Elzea.
The U.S. has no jurisdiction to prosecute Jabbateh for war crimes committed in Liberia, so authorities took a more roundabout way of exacting justice — immigration fraud charges.
“There are questions on forms you have to answer … Were you in the military? What unit? Were they involved in human rights violations?” said Elzea. Lying on those forms constitutes a felony.
ICE maintains that its methods for vetting refugees and asylees are secure. In addition to written questions, asylees such as Jabbateh go through interviews and background checks before earning legal status. Sometimes people slip through.
A few years ago, Tom Woewiyu, the former defense and press minister for Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, was also picked up on immigration fraud charges stemming from lying about his involvement in the war. He’d been living in Delaware County, too.
Elzea said the felony immigration fraud charges Jabbateh faces aren’t the first choice, but the aim, exacting justice for war crimes, is the same.
In court, two sides
The Philadelphia region has one of the highest concentration of Liberians in the U.S., numbering anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 depending on official versus community counts.
Most came fleeing the many-sided, deadly civil war, and lost family during the conflict.
Jabbateh has lived in the U.S. and is — by all accounts — a model resident and a pillar in the Liberian community.
Supporters and family turned out for his April 18 arraignment, where his lawyer, Gregory Pagano, vehemently denied the government could connect him to war crimes in Liberia.
“There’s not a single mention in the indictment of a single act” perpetrated by Jabbateh, said Pagano.
In his oral testimony, federal prosecutor Linwood Wright painted a very different picture.
“The grand jury found that it was more probably than not that he either directly participated in or ordered certain atrocities,” he told Judge Timothy Rice.
Those alleged atrocities include an incident where Jabbateh blamed residents of a small village when a roughly hewn bridge collapsed under a truck carrying soldiers in his battalion, sending them into a ravine.
“Consequently, he punished the villagers by forcing them to assemble in two lines,” said Wright. “One of the lines was made up of older, infirm villagers, while the other was young, healthy villagers. Jabbateh’s men flogged the older villagers while the younger villagers had their arms cut by bayonets.”
“Witnesses still bear the scars from the event,” said Wright.
The indictment alleges Jabbateh committed this and other crimes as a commander in ULIMO — and later ULIMO-K — two of the many militias involved Liberia’s civil two-part war.
On his application, Jabbateh admitted to fighting in the war, but according the indictment, he lied about the extent of his involvement and omitted information about the period he served as a commander.
Liberian expats split on case
Dozens, or even hundreds of people, committed human rights violations during the two, nearly continuous, Liberian civil wars. Some of the very visible perpetrators still hold high offices in that county. Friends of Jabbateh’s say they don’t object to violators being brought to justice, but they say that it feels arbitrary when known offenders are allowed to hold power in Liberia.
Continuing unrest in Liberia also means they see ulterior motives for the charges.
“We believe everything that is said about him is nothing but lies,” said Nvasekie Konneh, a member of the Liberian Mandingo Legal Defense Fund. Mandingo is the name of the tribe Konneh and Jabbateh belong to, one of 16 found in Liberia.
Konneh is also one of about two dozen people who offered to put their houses up as collateral so Jabbateh could be released on $1 million bail.
“There may be for tribal reason, may be some personal issue with Jabbateh, but I don’t know of any situation where Mohammed was considered to be committing a war crime,” he said of the witnesses the government plans to have testify at trial. Many others in the local Mandingo community hold that view as well.
The global human rights community — and other local Liberians — don’t buy that explanation. In the context of near impunity for crimes committed during the Liberian civil war, any arrest is a welcome change.
Attempts within Liberia to bring criminals to justice have gone nowhere, according to Elise Keppler, associate director with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
In Liberia, “the Truth and Reconciliation Commission definitely identified perpetrators, and it also recommended a war crimes tribunal,” she said. “That tribunal has yet to be created, and there haven’t to my knowledge been any cases.”
Some justice, therefore, is better than none, according to Keppler. Many Liberian immigrants also share that sentiment, including several who did not want to go on the record for this story.
In 2000, Edwin Dennis, a Liberian politician living in Pennsylvania, came to the U.S. to observe the Bush vs. Gore presidential election. After war resumed in Liberia, he stayed. Dennis has been working with a group of other Liberians expats to dig up evidence against war criminals living here.
“I think it brings a sense of relief,” he said of the charges against Jabbateh. “That you are today under arrest will tell other people that, look, people did these things, but we can’t do that again. It’s for the future of our country.”
However, even though he said he supports bringing justice against Liberian war criminals this way, he was still surprised to learn Jabbateh might have committed these crimes.
For the trial, the U.S. government prosecutors said they interviewed more than 30 witnesses, some of whom will come to Philadelphia to testify. No date has been set for the continuation of the trial.
If convicted, Jabbateh faces jail time and deportation.