Liberia: Clever Legal Footwork Puts End to Warlord's Freedom

(File photo).

For decades he has been beyond the reach of justice despite deeds of almost incomprehensible depravity, but Liberian warlord Jungle Jabbah has at last lost his staring match with the law: last week he was given a 30-year sentence and has already begun serving time in a US jail.

International efforts over the decades have tried to ensure that war criminals should never escape justice, with a net of conventions, treaties and even some domestic law. But it seemed that Jabbah - his real name is Mohammed Jabateh - would survive with impunity. Following Liberia's 14 years of war, he left that country and moved to the US where he has been enjoying the life of a successful businessman in Philadelphia. He reinvented himself and his personal history. A new man, it seemed; a new life.

But he misjudged. He reckoned without the tenacity of the people wronged in that war, prominent among whom is former journalist Hassan Bility, now the director of the Global Justice and Research Project. He also reckoned without the imaginative legal strategies of people working for an end to impunity for the world's war criminals such as the Swiss-based group Civitas Maxima.

These two groups worked with the US authorities that had already begun investigating Jabateh's story, and their collaboration ultimately helped the US authorities secure his arrest, trial, conviction and sentence - not for his war crimes, but because he lied and hid his crimes when he sought refuge from his past in the US.

Now the very country that seemed to offer him the possibility of permanent impunity has convicted and sentenced him. Strangely too, the very arm of US government forced by the present administration to adopt policies and practices infringing the human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers was a key element in his capture and trial.

His March 2016 arrest was followed by a spectacular trial in which some of his former victims were brought from Liberia to testify. He was convicted last October and sentencing was set for February this year, with expectations high that the sentence would reflect the gravity of the crimes of one of Liberia's most feared warlords.

Then the judge postponed sentencing for several months, sparking concern about what the reason might be. Some observers, however, speculated that perhaps the judge wanted to read further about his powers to impose sentences outside the official guidelines. And this was, in fact, an issue referred to by the judge when he delivered sentence: the 30-year jail term imposed by district judge Paul S Diamond last week was outside the usual guidelines, and probably the harshest sentence yet imposed for fraud under US immigration laws.

According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Diamond sentenced Jabateh he referred to the horrific testimony heard by the jury from survivors of the rape and torture inflicted by Jabateh or on his instructions, and from witnesses to the murder and cannibalism that he ordered. The witnesses were flown to the US from Liberia specifically to testify in the case.

Diamond said Jabateh's deeds, as described in evidence, 'factored heavily' into his decision to impose such a heavy sentence. He said the federal sentencing guidelines that typically applied when a case involved perjury and immigration fraud totalled 15 to 21 months.

However, such a sentence would have been not only 'unreasonable but outrageously offensive', given the warlord's well-documented record.

Diamond added: 'I am departing (from the normal guidelines) not based on the horror of the atrocities (Jabateh) committed abroad. Rather, I am departing based on the egregiousness of his lies ... and their effect on our asylum laws and immigration system.'

Jabateh's conviction and sentence are a triumph for all those involved in planning and executing this unusual strategy: using immigration laws to ensure an end to impunity for international criminals. Other prosecutions are in the wings, and according to Bility, the next will be that of former Defence Minister Thomas Woewiyu. Due to begin in Philadelphia in June, the trial of Woewiyu will be prosecuted by the same US team as in the Jabateh case.

For outsiders, perhaps the most bizarre element of these cases is that people like Jabateh are in effect standing trial for their actions during the horrific wars of 1989-2003 in the US rather than in Liberia, and instead of being charged with murder or rape or war crimes, they are being charged with lying to the US authorities.

Speaking to Legalbrief from the organisation's offices in Monrovia, Bility said the Liberian government had as yet made no comment on the sentence, but it was widely welcomed by many ordinary people who supported the principle that perpetrators of war crimes must be charged and punished.

A truth and reconciliation commission established after the war failed: its recommendations were ignored by the then-government, many of whose members were heavily compromised because of the role they played in the conflict. It recommended that those who helped the war effort but were not combatants should be barred from politics for 30 years; direct perpetrators should be prosecuted by a special court. Neither proposal took off. Too many people who had been involved in the war held positions in parliament; unwilling to set up systems for their own punishment, they ignored the commission's findings.

Now, however, said Bility, things might be changing. Liberia has a new government led by former international soccer star George Weah, someone who had no involvement with the conflict. 'He is on record as calling for a war crimes court to deal with people who conscripted children,' said Bility.

The recent visit to Liberia by top UN official Amina Mohammed, was also important as she urged Weah to institute war crimes' courts and implement the commission's recommendations. 'It was a very important message and the first time the UN has said this. We feel right now that there is a window (for change) and that change might be possible.'

He said when people spoke about setting up tribunals, Liberians implicated in the civil conflict always predicted there would be 'more war'. But when former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in a British jail for his role in the conflict, 'no war erupted'.

Similarly, the prospect of Taylor's former wife Agnes Reeves, being tried in the UK later this year has not caused 'more war', he said.

Liberians were pleased each time a warlord was arrested, convicted and sentenced because it signalled an end to a culture of impunity, 'but what we really want is for war crimes to be tried in a court here, in Liberia'.

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