Two views of Delco man: Businessman or war criminal

As his family sees it, Mohammed Jabbateh is the very picture of an immigrant success story - a man who fled political turmoil in his native Liberia nearly two decades ago, and established a successful business in Philadelphia and a growing family in the suburbs.

Prosecutors beg to differ. They say Jabbateh is hiding here, running from a past in which he led rebel commandos in acts of violence so horrific that a bridge bearing his nom de guerre - "Jungle Jabbah" - still stands in his home country at the site of a brutal attack.

But as both sides painted their portraits of the 49-year-old East Lansdowne man during a detention hearing Monday in federal court, a third possibility emerged: Elements of both stories could be true.

"This is a case of credibility," Jabbateh's lawyer Gregory Pagano said. "Some number of [Liberians] will come into court and say my client did these things - but I don't know who these people are and what their political motivations might be."

Federal agents detained Jabbateh last week, alleging that while seeking asylum in 1998, he lied to U.S. immigration authorities about his role in two civil wars that roiled Liberia throughout the '90s.

According to the indictment, Jabbateh either committed or oversaw the murders of civilians, the sexual enslavement of women, and the conscription of child soldiers while serving as a commander in the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO).

The group was one of many factions that fought the government and each other for control of the West African nation between 1989 and 2003.

Jabbateh has never denied that he led ULIMO'S Zebra Battalion or that he claimed the name "Jungle Jabbah" during the war.

Nor did he, while sitting in court Monday, dispute that the photo displayed by prosecutors - a faded image of a gaunt young man dressed in military fatigues with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder - was him.

A vehement denial

Yet, as Pagano urged U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice to release his client pending his trial, he sought to make one thing perfectly clear.

"My client vehemently denies having encouraged, enticed, or otherwise participated in acts of genocide or crimes against civilians," he said, adding later: "He is peaceful, deeply religious, and he is intensely loyal to the United States of America."

Jabbateh's indictment - which charges him with perjury and immigration fraud - lays out a sweeping history of Liberia's tribal conflicts, and outlines several atrocities allegedly committed by ULIMO forces as they sought to maintain their grip on the country's northwest region between 1992 and 1995.

Massacres of rural villagers are mentioned, as are attempts at ethnic cleansing. In one attack that the document describes, a ULIMO commander was said to have cut the ears off a victim, torn the heart out of another, and tortured a woman by crushing her legs between pieces of wood.

But missing from the 14-page filing are any details of what role Jabbateh is alleged to have played in the violence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright rectified that Monday, outlining for the judge an incident that he said exemplified Jabbateh's bloody behavior.

While leading ULIMO forces in Gbarpolu County, a jungle region 65 miles north of Liberia's capital, Monrovia, Jabbateh was irate when a makeshift bridge of logs collapsed underneath them, dumping a military truck into a 50-foot ravine.

As Wright described it, Jabbateh blamed a nearby village for the shoddy construction and stormed into the town, ordering the flogging of its elderly residents, and watching while the arms of the village youth were slashed with bayonets.

The bridge later was rebuilt and opened under the name "Jungle Jabah Bridge."

Wright said Monday that he and agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have taken multiple trips to Liberia and lined up more than 30 other witnesses who have agreed to testify about other alleged misdeeds by Jabbateh.

'Wartime atrocities'

"The underlying facts of this case are replete with wartime atrocities that the government contends Mr. Jabbateh either personally committed or oversaw," he said.

Still, Wright conceded, since arriving in the U.S. 18 years ago, Jabbateh has led a largely peaceful life.

He has no criminal record. He owns a Southwest Philadelphia business that packs shipping containers for export to Liberia. And he is supporting a fiancee, an ex-wife, and five children ranging in age from nine months to 21 years old.

Jabbateh also recently attempted to sponsor for immigration to the U.S. some of the seven other children he has with a woman living in Africa.

In court Monday, dozens of family members and supporters from Philadelphia and Delaware County's large Liberian expatriate community packed the courtroom to vouch for his character. At least 14 offered to stake their homes as collateral to ensure his appearances in court.

Ultimately, their presence was enough to convince Rice, who ordered Jabbateh released under house arrest if he could find properties worth $1 million to forfeit should he flee before trial.

But whether he wins or loses in court, Jabbateh's time in the U.S. is likely to end soon.

Immigration authorities have signaled they will seek to deport him whether or not he is convicted.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck