Delco man sentenced to 30 years for hiding warlord past

A federal judge has sentenced Mohammed Jabbateh to 30 years in prison for lying to U.S. immigration officials about being a brutal warlord during Liberia's first civil war.

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U.S. Attorney William McSwain (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

U.S. Attorney William McSwain (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

A federal judge has sentenced Delaware County businessman Mohammed Jabbateh to 30 years in prison for lying to U.S. immigration officials about being a brutal warlord during Liberia’s first civil war.

The historic sentence far exceeds the federal guidelines — 15 to 20 months — for someone convicted of immigration fraud and perjury.

The reason: Jabbateh’s cover-up wasn’t considered guideline material by prosecutors or U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond, who presided over the 51 year-old’s trial in October.

“The defendant is responsible for turning thousands of Liberians into refugees,” said Diamond during Thursday’s hearing in Philadelphia.

Witnesses identified Jabbateh as a commander of a rebel battalion responsible for a string of heinous crimes during the bloody conflict, which killed more than 250,000 Liberians between 1989 and 1997.

They said Jabbateh and his men tortured, murdered, raped and ritually cannibalized innocent villagers in his home country – men, women, and children.

“At times, he forced his victims to literally cook the hearts of their murdered family members and serve them to himself and his fighters to be eaten,” said William McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, after the hearing.

Jabbateh — known in Liberia as “Jungle Jabbah” — wasn’t convicted of those crimes. Prosecutors didn’t have the authority to pursue those charges.

Instead, Jabbateh was arrested after federal agents discovered he misrepresented himself on immigration paperwork — documents that earned him asylum in the U.S. in 1999 and a green card a few years later.

Ironically, Jabbateh told officials that he was being persecuted and that he had never harmed anyone in Liberia.

“[Jabbateh] came to this country a wolf, cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of a refugee,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer.

Jabbateh, dressed in a hunter green prison jump suit, showed no emotion as Diamond handed him what could easily be a life sentence.

When given a chance to address his crimes, he told Diamond he had “nothing to say.”

Liberia has never tried any of its war criminals, making this case the first time someone tied to the bloodshed has had to answer for the atrocities that ripped Liberia apart.

“What we’ve effectively done, is set up a mechanism here in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to hold war criminals accountable when they seek safe haven in the United States by lying to the immigration authorities,” said McSwain.

In addition to 30 years in jail, Jabbateh was sentenced to three years of supervision after his release. He will likely be deported to Liberia after he’s served his sentence.

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