PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In Liberia's first civil war he was known as "Jungle Jabbah," a rebel commander who witnesses said sliced a baby out of a pregnant woman's stomach, killed civilians and ordered his soldiers to rape young girls, according to prosecutors.
But for nearly the last two decades, Mohammed Jabbateh has lived a quiet life in America after being granted asylum — a protection that will soon come into question after a jury was selected Monday for his trial on charges that he lied about his past on U.S. immigration documents.
Prosecutors have several witnesses who in court documents recalled their interactions with Jabbateh, 51, when he was alleged to be a high-ranking member of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy and a splinter faction called ULIMO-K, both Liberian rebel groups in the 1990s.
In one 1994 account, a man identified in court documents as "Witness AA" said that he saw Jabbateh order his soldiers to kill a town chief whose heart was then removed, boiled and eaten. Another witness described how rebels put gasoline-doused tires around two prisoners of war and set them ablaze after Jabbateh instructed his men to execute them.
Yet when an immigration official interviewed him about his asylum application in 1999, Jabbateh responded "no" when asked if he had ever committed a crime or if he had ever harmed anyone, according to prosecutors. And when he applied for permanent residence in 2002, he also wrote that he never engaged in genocide or killings rooted in race, religion or political opinion.
However, he did acknowledge that he was assigned to a security detail for a rebel leader and that some newspaper articles called him "Jungle Jabbah," the government said.
In a court document filed after Jabbateh's arrest last year, his attorney, Gregory Pagano, said Jabbateh vehemently denies that he committed or ordered the violent acts.
"He is peaceful, deeply religious and he is intensely loyal to the United States of America," his lawyer wrote, adding that Jabbateh has a home outside of Philadelphia and owns a business that packs shipping containers. He has no criminal record, his attorney said, and several of his friends and family told reporters gathered outside U.S. District Court in Philadelphia that Jabbateh never committed war crimes in his homeland.
The case is one of a handful of legal efforts to track down people accused of committing atrocities during the civil wars that began in 1989 and devastated Liberia through most of the 1990s and early 2000s, according to Elise Keppler, the associate director of the International Justice Program at the research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch. She cited similar efforts in the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
In 2008, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted in a federal court in Florida for torturing or ordering the torture of dozens of his father's political opponents. Charles McArthur Emmanuel, who is better known as Chuckie Taylor, was sentenced to 97 years in prison. He also was sued by five torture victims who were awarded $22.4 million in damages.
"This is obviously a narrow slice of a very large impunity gap in Liberia," Keppler said of the Jabbateh trial, "but it's important and heartening to see that states like the U.S. are playing a part in trying to bring some measure of justice to victims."