On October 2, the trial of Mohammed Jabbateh, also known as “Jungle Jabbah,” a former United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) commander during Liberia’s First Civil War, began in Philadelphia. He is accused of lying about his wartime actions on his US asylum claim in the late 1990s.
This will be the first time that victims will testify in a criminal trial about the First Liberian Civil War. The trial is also a unique and historical step by the US attorney’s office to present a war crimes case in a national courtroom.
If convicted, Jabbateh will face a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
The US attorney stated, “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 background and history.”
The Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), based in Liberia, together with Civitas Maxima (CM), based in Geneva, have been working with victims since 2012 to document war crimes committed in Liberia.
They have recently launched the Liberian Quest for Justice campaign, which will provide a public and accessible account of the Jungle Jabbah trial in Philadelphia. This account will be apolitical, balanced, and unbiased.
During its two civil wars over a 14-year period, from 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003, Liberia was left ravaged, with an unspeakable level of human suffering and economic devastation. An estimated 150,000 civilians were killed.
Despite explicit recommendations by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009, neither the Liberian government nor the international community have prosecuted perpetrators for war crimes committed during the First Liberian Civil War. This is largely due to the fact that many key perpetrators of the civil war still hold important political positions in the Liberian government today.
Certainly, it is advantageous to have cases and prosecutions take place in Liberia, but because many alleged perpetrators remain in political power, that is not a viable solution at present. Therefore, victims have been seeking justice outside of Liberia.
It is clear that the Jabbateh trial is momentous, marking the beginning to an end of a culture of impunity in Liberia. Coincidentally, Liberia’s presidential and legislative elections took place on October 10, marking a time of transition for Liberia as a country.
The Philadelphia trial is just the first chapter. The Liberian Quest for Justice campaign will run throughout 2018 and will also cover any other criminal trials outside Liberia of alleged Liberian war criminals. Several other Liberian cases are expected to go forward in European countries that have extra-territorial jurisdiction for international crimes.
GJRP and CM hope that this renewed quest for justice for Liberian war crimes victims will encourage the Liberian government to provide justice for Liberian victims in its national courts.
Alain Werner is a lawyer and the Director of Civitas Maxima (Facebook, Twitter). He has worked for the Prosecutor’s Office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), including on the trial of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Mr. Werner has also represented victims in various other trials, including the case against former president of Chad, Hissène Habré. He currently represents Liberian plaintiffs in a war crimes case in Switzerland against Alieu Kosiah