Philadelphia — The defense lawyer in the case of accused war criminal Mohammed Jabateh surprised the court today by declining to put any witnesses on the stand to defend his client.
As the government finished up more than two weeks laying out the case that Jabateh had lied on asylum papers where he was asked if he'd ever participated in war crimes, it was widely anticipated that the defendant's lawyers would mount their case.
But that is not to be. Tomorrow in the federal court in Philadelphia both sides will present their closing arguments.
It will then be up to the 12-member jury to decide whether Jabbateh, formerly known as "Jungle Jabbah" will be convicted. He could face up to 30 years in prison.
Today federal prosecutors called their final witness in an effort to complete their argument that Jabbateh was a ruthless murderer and rapist and also a "liar."
The government's last witness (#23) said that during his eight-years working in Liberia's presidential offices known as the Executive Mansion, he saw ex-ULIMO rebel General Mohammed Jabbateh, or Jungle Jabbah all but three times.
The identity of prosecution witnesses is being withheld for their security.
Jabateh is facing U.S. immigration fraud and perjury charges in a federal court in Philadelphia, the result of his immigration asylum application in 1998, when prosecutors say he lied about those alleged atrocities and using child soldiers during the Liberian war. Jabateh's attorney denied the charges.
"During those times I saw him, he was a bodyguard to the ULIMO leader Alhaji Kromah."
"No, he was not in the SSS," the witness told a packed courtroom, rejecting Jabbah's claims that he'd worked in the Liberian Presidential Secret Service, known as the SSS.
"Every faction leader brought in their own rebels to provide them security. They were not SSS."
"The SSS provided security to the civilian members in the Council of State. To become SSS personnel, you have to go through lots of training, but because of the war, the SSS did not have the means to train new people," the witness said.
Defense attorney Pagano had earlier informed the federal judge that he wouldn't be bringing Jabbateh's witnesses via live video link from Monrovia as was previously promised.
The court had been told the witnesses had trouble getting passports. One was denied a visa by the US embassy for security reasons.
Outside the court Pagano answered this reporter's question about that strategy but saying: "I'm not going to discuss defense strategy." Pagano disclosed in court earlier that he would instead present 10 character witnesses "who would state that my client is a good and law abiding man."
Strangely, none of the 10 character witnesses were then given a chance to pitch personal stories on Jabbateh's behalf.
They were each called out by their names to step to the front of the court.
Pagano said to the judge, "your honor, these individuals do hereby testify that my client is a good and a law-abiding man, he said after all 10 character witnesses were sworn in as a group.
Legal experts watching the trial were perplexed saying they had never seen such a strategy.
The judge said if all went according to these schedules by prosecution and defense attorneys, the jury may be asked to start deliberations tomorrow or Wednesday.
U.S. attorneys called off their plan trip back to Monrovia, where they would have cross-examined Jabbah's witnesses, after Pagano's announcement that Liberia-based witnesses won't testify via video or in-person.
Liberia was made generally lawless throughout its 14 years of brutal civil war that displaced more than half of its population and left more than 250,000 dead. The country was divided in several fiefdoms by as many as seven militia warring factions.
The ULIMO faction which Jabbah once led as a commander was formed by mostly Krahn and Mandingo refugees in neighboring Sierra Leone to take on the main armed group led by Charles Taylor in 1992. Taylor, himself a ruthless rebel leader is serving a 50-year term after he was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague in 2013.
Witness 23 reminded jurors that at one point during the civil war, Jabbah's ULIMO-K backed Charles Taylor's former militia, the NPFL to "arrest" a splinter leader of ULIMO-J, a prosecution strategy to debunk Jabbah's asylum claim of being a victim of Taylor's NPFL.