Prosecutors: Delco man committed Liberian war atrocities

The sign outside his Southwest Philadelphia overseas shipping business proclaims Mohammed Jabbateh to be "Professional. Reliable. Trusted."

Federal authorities Wednesday offered another label to describe him: war criminal.

In an indictment filed in U.S. District Court, prosecutors accused the 49-year-old East Lansdowne man of lying to U.S. immigration officials about his past as a rebel commander responsible for atrocities during Liberia's back-to-back civil wars.

Under the nom de guerre "Jungle Jabbah," they said, Jabbateh carried out or oversaw the murders of civilians, the sexual enslavement of women, and the conscription of child soldiers during the years-long, multifaction conflict that roiled his native country between 1989 and 2003.

"This defendant allegedly committed unspeakable crimes in his home country, brutalizing numerous innocent victims," U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said. "He then sought to escape to the United States, where he lied about his criminal background on federal immigration forms."

His fiancee declined to comment after a brief court hearing at which a magistrate judge ordered Jabbateh held in custody pending a detention hearing Monday.

As he was ushered before the magistrate judge - handcuffed and dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans - relatives were left to square the prosecutors' description with the devoted father and businessman they said they have known Jabbateh to be since his arrival in this country nearly two decades ago.

His cousin Voffee Jabbateh said relatives were still trying to sort out the story.

According to court filings, Mohammed Jabbateh was granted political asylum in 1998. After applying for legal residency in 2002, he opened a business specializing in loading American cars for shipment and sale in Liberia.

"He's a very hard worker," said Voffee Jabbateh, who serves as a director of the Philadelphia-based African Cultural Alliance of North America. "Every time I saw him, he was always working."

Still, Voffee Jabbateh said, the conflicts of their native country cast a long shadow over the 15,000-member Liberian expatriate community in Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County. Asked whether he was surprised that his cousin had been accused of wartime atrocities dating back decades, Voffee Jabbateh paused.

"It doesn't surprise me. The war still goes on outside Liberia. Anything is possible during the period we are talking about," he said, adding later: "But this is a country of laws. We have to be careful that we don't overexaggerate the circumstances."

The indictment - which charges Mohammed Jabbateh with counts including immigration fraud and perjury - contains few details on what specific acts prosecutors believe he was involved in during the Liberian conflict.

Instead, court filings describe him as a "commander or high-ranking officer" in the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), a group formed in 1991 in opposition to forces allied with President Charles Taylor - a violent leader in his own right, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2012 for crimes against humanity.

Through much of the 1990s, ULIMO held a large swath of northwestern Liberia. Human-rights organizations have documented dozens of atrocities the organization allegedly committed to maintain its grip on the region. The violence only intensified when ethnic tensions and tribal factions rent ULIMO in two in 1994.

The rival groups have been linked to massacres of rural villages, attempts at ethnic cleansing, and an attack on the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Vahun that led to the suspension of all humanitarian operations in the region.

In one episode outlined by prosecutors Wednesday, an ULIMO commander cut off the ears of a victim, tore the heart out of another, and tortured a woman by crushing her legs between two pieces of wood.

What role Jabbateh may have played in any of that violence remains unclear, his lawyer, Gregory Pagano, said. He declined to comment further, saying he had not yet had a chance to speak with his client or fully review the indictment.

But in its structure, the case appears similar to charges federal prosecutors brought two years ago against another Liberian civil-war figure. Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, a prominent figure in the Liberian diaspora in the Philadelphia region, was charged in 2014 with lying about his past as a former spokesman and defense minister for Taylor's regime while applying for U.S. citizenship in 2006. Woewiyu has denied the allegations and continues to fight the charges.

The Justice Department has increasingly turned to immigration violations in the last decade in its attempts to weed out suspected war criminals believed to be in the United States.

A team of historians, investigators, and legal experts under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's War Crimes Center has obtained deportation orders for more than 780 known or suspected human-rights violators since 2004.

"The United States has always welcomed refugees and those fleeing oppression," said Jack Staton, head of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Philadelphia. "But we will not be a safe haven for alleged human-rights violators and war criminals."

jroebuck@phillynews.com215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck