By Alain Werner and Lisa-Marie Rudi of Civitas Maxima.
On 19 April 2018, Mohammed Jabbateh, the Liberian warlord known as “Jungle Jabbah”, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Philadelphia, culminating a landmark case in the United States and marking a long-overdue milestone for justice in Liberia.
In October 2017, Jabbateh had been convicted of two counts of fraud and two counts of perjury after lying on his immigration forms about his connection to war crimes. Thirty years is the maximum sentence he could have received and one of the longest prison sentences for immigration fraud in U.S. history. According to the indictment, he personally committed, or ordered his soldiers to commit, barbaric acts of violence, torture, cannibalism and human rights abuses in the First Liberian Civil War (1989 – 1997).
The 3-week hearing, which we covered in daily monitoring reports on our website, was historic as it was the very first time that victims of the First Liberian Civil War were able to testify about the atrocities that they endured in front of a criminal judge. Despite two brutal civil wars which left over 200,000 dead, nobody was ever held accountable for war crimes in Liberia.
Since 2012, Civitas Maxima and its sister organization the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) in Monrovia have been documenting atrocities committed during the Liberian civil war and representing victims in their fight for justice. We collaborated with authorities on the investigation of Jabbateh for the past 4 years, ensuring that 17 Liberian victims were able to testify in Philadelphia.
Liberian reactions to the verdict and sentencing were overwhelmingly positive. Front Page Africa reported on reactions of victims who lived under Jabbateh’s rule of terror: “I see it as a good bye to impunity in this country wherein people who carried on mass murdering of citizens, gang raping and other economic crimes are not allow them to go free”.
These and other similar positive reactions to the verdict and sentence as well as the wide Liberian engagement with our social media campaign, the Liberian Quest for Justice, clearly show that Liberian victims are yearning for justice.
Even though the verdict and sentence were historic and important for victims in Liberia as well as in the diaspora, the number of alleged Liberian war criminals who remain to be held accountable for their actions is large. Many even hold positions of power in the country they once terrorized. Hassan Bility, the Director of the GJRP, argued in a recent blog post that the lack of accountability for grave crimes is an obstacle to long-lasting peace and stability in Liberia.
What are the next steps in the Liberian Quest for Justice?
More cases of alleged Liberian war criminals, many of which we have been working on or initiated, will move to trial in the near future. The trials of Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, former leading figure of the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia), and of Agnes Taylor who was Charles Taylor’s wife, will take place in 2018 in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. It is anticipated that NPFL commander Martina Johnson, as well as former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) Alieu Kosiah, will also be tried this or next year in Belgium and Switzerland, respectively. Moreover, the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil case in Philadelphia on behalf of four Liberian victims against Moses Thomas, believed to have led a deadly attack on a Lutheran Church during the first Liberian civil war.
Like the Jabbateh case, these cases are an expression of a movement of Liberian victims who no longer accept the status quo of impunity. Confronted with government officials who have refused to prioritize access to justice for survivors of wartime atrocities, they have taken matters into their own hands and successfully fought for accountability outside of Liberia.
However, the extraterritorial trials will never be enough. In January this year, in cooperation with over 20 other human rights organization, we sent an open letter to President George Weah, urging him to fulfill Liberia’s obligations to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocities. Liberian leaders will have to respond to their people’s demands for accountability and acknowledge that the victims’ cries are growing increasingly louder and harder to ignore.
It has been truly humbling to work alongside heroes like Hassan Bility as well as alongside victims who had the courage to look “Jungle Jabbah” straight into the eyes as they recounted how he and his men raped, mutilated, murdered and enslaved them and their families. Their courage, resilience and resolve should not be underestimated.
We are hopeful that one day Liberians will be able to observe and participate in trials like the one of Jabbateh on Liberian soil. Until then, Civitas Maxima and the GJRP will continue to stand alongside the victims in their quest for justice.
We will continue to lead outreach campaigns and monitor the upcoming trials of alleged Liberian war criminals expected to happen in 2018 and 2019. To support our efforts to bring justice to victims of war crimes we launched a crowdfunding campaign. Every small contribution can make a big difference.
Sketch: Artist/Chase Walker, 2017. Copyright: Civitas Maxima Mohammed Jabbateh’s trial in Philadelphia, October 2017.