A federal appeals court in Philadelphia this week endorsed the 30-year sentence imposed on a Delaware County man accused of hiding his past in the ’90s as a murderous Liberian warlord, affirming one of the longest sentences ever given to an accused war criminal convicted of immigration fraud in the United States.
Mohammed Jabateh, 53, of East Lansdowne, was convicted in 2017 of only perjury and fraud while applying for permanent residency, counts that in his case would normally have led to a sentence of less than two years.
But a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit stood by the judge’s decision to fashion a punishment more than 15 times that suggested prison term in light of what Jabateh was accused of lying about: The numerous atrocities survivors said he committed including acts of murder, rape, enslavement and cannibalism during a punishing and protracted civil war that ravaged Liberia between 1989 and 1997.
“Over and over, the district court explained its decision hinged on the gravity of Jabateh’s concealment of his commission of every conceivable war crime and countless human rights offenses,” wrote Circuit Judges Thomas L. Ambro, Paul Matey and Julio M. Fuentes in their opinion released Tuesday. “Although the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, they do not turn without purpose.”
Jabateh’s conviction in Philadelphia three years ago was hailed as historic by a generation of survivors both in Liberia and the Delaware Valley, where a sizable community of expats fleeing the brutality of the conflict settled as refugees.
It was the first time that anyone had ever been prosecuted – let alone convicted – anywhere in the world for crimes connected to the numerous documented human rights violations committed during the multi-factioned, ethnic fighting that left more than 250,000 of the West African nation’s civilians dead.
Some former rebel leaders still hold positions of power in Liberia’s government, and the ethnic divisions that fueled the wars still divide the nation.
And while, in many cases, the United States does not have jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed by non-US citizens in conflicts waged abroad, for years the Justice Department has sought to weed out war criminals hiding in the US by charging them with lying about their pasts on their applications to live in the country.
It has used the tactic to imprison, then expel, Nazis, Bosnian and Rwandan military commanders and, in several investigations, Liberians living in and around Philadelphia.
But even among those ignominious ranks, Jabateh’s wartime record stood out for what the appellate judges described Tuesday as “monstrous” acts committed with “bone-chilling cruelty.”
By the time of his 2016 arrest, Jabateh had moved to the United States, fathered five children and launched a Philadelphia-based international shipping company. But all of the 17 Liberian war victims flown in to testify against him identified Jabateh immediately from the witness stand as the brutal rebel commander whose reputation during the war earned him the nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah.”
One testified she had been captured, raped for weeks by Jabateh’s men, then turned into a sex slave at 13 before she managed to escape. Another detailed how he had been forced into slavery to dig diamonds on threat of death to fund the warlord’s military campaigns.
And in perhaps the most wrenching testimony of his trial, the wife of a village chieftain alleged that Jabateh’s soldiers killed her husband and then delivered his heart to her on a platter. Jabateh, she said, ordered her to cook it for him and his men to eat.
“The record goes on and on, but we will not,” the appellate judges wrote Tuesday. “It is enough to say without exaggeration that the atrocities documented at trial, and found by a jury paint, the portrait of a madman.”
Jabateh challenged both his conviction and the 30-year sentence in his appeal before the 3rd Circuit, arguing that the US Justice Department had twisted the law to put him on trial for war crimes over which they had no jurisdiction by dressing it up as an immigration fraud case.
He has argued that he, too, became a victim of atrocities committed by rival factions and was forced to flee to the US in 1998, seeking political asylum.
But the appellate court held in its opinion Tuesday that the evidence against Jabateh was overwhelming and that the judge who oversaw his trial, US District Judge Paul S. Diamond, was well within his discretion to impose the punishment that he did.
At the time, Diamond described the 15- to 21-month sentence recommended by federal sentencing guidelines as not only “unreasonable but outrageously offensive” in light of Jabateh’s wartime conduct. Though each of the individual counts of perjury and immigration fraud for which Jabateh was convicted carried maximum sentences well below 30 years, Diamond ordered Jabateh to serve them all back to back rather than concurrently.
Still, the judge stressed that the punishment he imposed was not based on the horrific atrocities Jabateh committed abroad but rather the egregiousness of the lies he told “making a mockery” of the US asylum system that has been setup to protect people fleeing from human rights abusers like himself.
“The sentence was ultimately based,” the 3rd Circuit panel wrote Tuesday, “on the seriousness of (Jabateh’s) lies and their effect on the asylum and immigration process.”