Updated: Tuesday, October 3, 2017, 7:05 PM
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 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 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 a 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,” he said. “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, which ravaged the country between 1989 and 1997. 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 contends that Jabateh hid his past as a rebel commander leading the Zebra Battalion of 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 multi-factioned conflict that erupted in the jungles and brushlands along Liberia’s border with Sierra Leone. But, remarkably, no one has ever been held criminally responsible in Liberia for the documented atrocities committed by 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, torture, and ritual cannibalism.
To prove its case, the Justice Department has flown in more than 20 witnesses from Liberia for the trial.
Some come from urban backgrounds in the capital city, Monrovia; others grew up in the backcountry bush with little to no formal education. Few knew one another before this case, and they have little reason to collude, Thayer said.
Court filings lay out their tales of almost unfathomable brutality, including one woman’s account of Jabateh and fellow commanders ordering her to cook her husband’s heart in a soup and serve it to them moments after they cut the man down with a machete.
Another, the first of Jabateh’s alleged victims to testify, told jurors Tuesday that he plucked her out of the crowd after seizing her village in 1994, named her his wife, and forced her to sleep with him twice a day for three weeks.
“Some of it will be difficult to conceive, sitting here in Philadelphia – separated by nearly two decades and thousands of miles from such atrocities,” Thayer told the jury. “It may be difficult for you to even comprehend how some of these events could have occurred.”
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 legs crossed under the defense table, 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. A West African peacekeeping force eventually released him and he fled to the U.S. soon afterward.
Since then, Jabateh says, he spent his time devoted to his family and his international shipping business, Jabateh Brothers Inc., in Southwest Philadelphia.
It was there that James Fasuekoi — a Liberian photojournalist who shot a striking wartime image of a young “Jungle Jabbah,” eyes covered in reflective shades, hair in short dreadlocks, an automatic weapon slung over his arm – said he was shocked to find Jabateh working 18 years after taking that photo.
Fasuekoi, then living in Allentown, testified Tuesday that he had come to Philadelphia to ship a car back to Liberia from the United States.
Asked by prosecutors whether he was sure that Jabateh was the man he saw in the jungle decades ago, the photographer paused to consider.
He stood up, walked over to the defense table, and peered into Jabateh’s eyes.
“It’s been a long time,” he said eventually, “but it’s him.”