-Jungle Jabbah lawyer claims
As his federal trial opened Tuesday, a Delaware County man accused of hiding his past as a Liberian war criminal was cast by his defense lawyer as a victim – first of an authoritarian regime that drove him to seek asylum in the United States, and now of nearly two dozen former countrymen expected to take the witness stand and accuse him of horrific atrocities he insists he did not commit.
Mohammed Jabateh, they are expected to say, terrorized whole villages – murdering men, raping women, and eating the hearts of his enemies — as the rebel commander known as “Jungle Jabbah” during the civil war that roiled his West African nation in the early 1990s.
But addressing the jury for the first time Tuesday, defense lawyer Greg Pagano maintained that each of his client’s accusers has political, religious, or factional reasons to lie.
“This case has the intrigue of international war,” Pagano told the panel. “This case has the intrigue of grotesque acts of human cannibalism. But this is a case about lies. And the question is: Who is lying?” That salvo opened the unusual court proceeding set to play out in Philadelphia over the next several weeks – one that has captured the attention of Liberians both here and in Africa.
Prosecutors allege that Jabateh, a 51-year-old business owner and father of five, committed unspeakable crimes during the first Liberian Civil War. But the case itself revolves around a simple immigration question: whether he lied about those acts while applying for asylum and eventually a green card in the United States.
The government maintains that Jabateh hid his past as a rebel commander with the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO-K), a faction opposed to former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
More than 250,000 people died in conflict between the two groups between 1989 and 1997. But, remarkably, no one has ever been held criminally responsible in Liberia for the documented atrocities committed by factions on all sides.
“You can’t commit heinous war crimes in your home country and then come to this country and lie about those crimes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer said in his own opening remarks to jurors.
Thayer warned the panel that the testimony would include disturbing allegations of evisceration, sexual slavery, brutal torture, and ritual cannibalism.
“Some of it will be difficult to conceive, sitting here in Philadelphia – separated by nearly two decades and thousands of miles from such atrocities,” he said. “It may be difficult for you to even comprehend how some of these events could have occurred.”
To prove its case against Jabateh, the Justice Department has flown in more than 20 witnesses from Liberia for the trial.
Some come from big-city life in Monrovia; others grew up in the back country bush with little to no formal education. Few knew each other before this case, and they have little reason to collude, Thayer said.
For his own part, Jabateh says he never hid either his wartime role with ULIMO-K or the fact that his childhood nickname was “Jungle Jabbah.”
He sat quietly in a dark suit, his fist clenched against his lips, as the government laid out its case against him.
He maintains that he spent most of the war not in the jungles where the alleged atrocities occurred but working security in Monrovia at the Liberian equivalent of the White House.
When Taylor’s rival NPFL took control of the capital in 1997, Jabateh says, he was jailed and ultimately tortured. He eventually was released thanks to a West African peacekeeping force and fled to the U.S. soon afterward.
Since then, Jabateh says, he spent his time devoted to his family; his international shipping business, Jabateh Brothers Inc., and his mosque.
Speaking Tuesday, Pagano likened his client’s arrest last year in the current case – one he says is being driven by political considerations in Liberia – to the treatment that eventually drove him from Africa.
“This man has the scars to prove what happened to him over there,” the lawyer said. “All my client wants in this process is the fairness he did not get in Liberia.”-Culled from the Philadelphia Inquirer.