Jabbateh fled Liberia in 1998 and sought asylum in the United States to make a better life for himself. He also managed successfully to shed off his atrocious past. Until last week. Now he’s fighting the toughest battle of his life.
According to media reports, last Wednesday the US Attorney in Philadelphia slapped the 49-year-old Jabbateh with a 14-page indictment accusing him of being a war criminal who knowingly lied under oath when he filed his immigration papers to settle in the United States. The indictment further charged Jabbateh of either committing or supervising the murders of civilians, the sexual enslavement of women, and the conscription of child soldiers while he served as a Ulimo commander.
“This defendant allegedly committed unspeakable crimes in his home country, brutalizing numerous innocent victims. He then sought to escape to the United States where he lied about his criminal background on federal immigration forms. This office will use whatever tools are available to bring to justice serious criminals who abuse our immigration process by concealing their backgrounds and histories,” U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger is quoted to have said in a statement.
Jabbateh’s family and his defense team however see things differently, arguing the former fighter is now a successful businessman, an astute community member and a family man. His lawyer contends that his client is “deeply religious, peaceful and intensely loyal to the United States”.
But the prosecution is also working overtime to ensure Jabbateh is booked. Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood Wright is reported to have said he and agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took multiple trips to Liberia and lined up 30 witnesses who will prove the charges against Jabbateh.
Already, the case has caused quite a stir in the United States where a good number of Liberians are surprisingly sympathizing with the former warlord. When the Philly court demanded a $1 million bail, it was mostly Jabbateh’s US resident countrymen who put up their properties as collateral to have him released under house arrest.
Jabbateh or Jungle Jabbah served as key commander of the United Liberian Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), a rebel group formed in 1991 by Krahn refugees and AFL soldiers who fled into Sierra Leone and Guinea to escape the NPFL onslaught on Krahns and Mandingoes. As Commander of the notorious Zebra Battalion, Jungle Jabbah would lead the charge to capture most parts of Western Liberia when Ulimo entered Liberia in September 1991.
The group split in 1994 with the Krahns forming the Ulimo-J sub-faction under the command of Roosevelt Johnson, and the Mandingoes forming the Alhaji Kromah-led Ulimo-K. According to survivors who escaped the ensuing battles between the two groups, elements of the Ulimo-K faction would eat the hearts of captured Krahns or put war prisoners in air tight containers where they would suffocate to death.
If convicted, Jabbateh could face up to 30 years in prison. But even if he’s acquitted, the US Immigration says it would make sure Jabbateh is sent back to Liberia.
In Liberia the case is whipping up sentiments among citizens who are calling for the long arm of the U.S. justice to stretch out to trap other former warlords and persons bearing greater responsibility for committing civil war crimes and human rights violations during the civil war.
Pundits are watching keenly how the Jabbateh case, which bears striking similarity to the Tom Woewiyu indictment, will end. The outcome could have portending implications for war crimes, justice and impunity in Liberia and the West African region.