A Delaware County man serving a 30-year prison term for hiding his past as a brutal Liberian warlord to gain entry into the United States urged a federal appeals court in Philadelphia on Tuesday to overturn his conviction and sentence.
Lawyers for Mohammed Jabateh, 53, of East Lansdowne, argued that their client may have committed numerous murders, rapes, and acts of enslavement, torture and ritual cannibalism during the first Liberian civil war — a protracted, multifaction conflict that ravaged the West African nation between 1989 and 1997 — but as terrible as those crimes were, they did not necessarily amount to genocide.
“Liberia, for all its horrors in the early ‘90s, was not Rwanda, not Bosnia, not Cambodia, and not the Third Reich,” Jabateh’s attorney Peter Goldberger said in court papers. “Genocide is a term with a precise and narrow meaning.”
That distinction could prove key as a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit considers whether to upend a historic verdict that resonated from Philadelphia’s sizable community of West African expats to Liberia, a nation more than 4,500 miles away.
Before Jabateh’s 2017 trial, no one had ever been held criminally accountable for the numerous documented atrocities committed on all sides of the nation’s first civil conflict, a war that left more than 250,000 civilians dead. And despite a decades-long push by some advocates to establish a war-crimes tribunal in the capital of Monrovia, suspected perpetrators continue to live openly and in some cases hold prominent roles in Liberia’s government.
A decision by the U.S. appeals court in Jabateh’s favor could cut off one of the few avenues of justice afforded to a generation of Liberian war victims. It could also upend the chief tactic U.S. authorities have relied upon to weed out war criminals seeking refuge in the U.S.
As it has done in dozens of other cases in recent years — including a similar 2018 case against Tom Woewiyu of Collingdale, another Liberian, who fought on the opposite side in the war — the Justice Department charged Jabateh not with any of his alleged wartime misdeeds but with lying about them on his application for political asylum in the late ‘90s and later legal residency.
Goldberger stressed Tuesday that chief among those alleged lies was Jabateh’s negative answer to a question asking whether he had ever engaged in genocide or participated in the killing of another person because of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or political affiliation.
His client’s tactics might have been brutal, the lawyer contended, but they weren’t persecution and were committed in “a general atmosphere of cruelty and violence in the context of a civil war seemingly waged without rules or restraint.”
But Robert A. Zauzmer, chief of appeals for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, balked at the idea that the Third Circuit judges would give Jabateh’s argument any serious consideration. He pointed to the roughly dozen Liberian victims who flew to the U.S. nearly three years ago to identify Jabateh as their tormentor — a sadistic warlord who fought under the nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah.”
One woman testified she had been captured, turned into a sex slave at 13, and raped daily for weeks until she managed to escape. Another, the wife of a village chieftain, alleged that Jabateh’s soldiers killed her husband, delivered his heart to her on a platter, and forced her to cook it for Jabateh and his men.
“Mr. Goldberger likes to say that these were combatants at war and … likens this to the American Civil War,” Zauzmer told the Third Circuit on Tuesday. “This was not the Blue and Gray meeting on the field of Antietam. These were atrocities committed against local citizens, local villagers, based on their ethnicities and their affiliations with rival political groups.”
The appellate panel appeared just as skeptical.
But the judges also expressed hesitation Tuesday about Jabateh’s three-decade sentence — a punishment more than 17 times greater than the 15 to 21 months called for under federal sentencing guidelines. It is the longest prison term ever imposed against an alleged foreign war criminal convicted solely on violations of U.S. immigration law.
In explaining his decision in 2018, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond described the suggested guideline sentence as “outrageously offensive” in light of Jabateh’s wartime conduct.
He cautioned, however, that he was not departing from it “based on the horror of the atrocities [Jabateh] committed abroad” but rather because of “the egregiousness of his lies” to U.S. immigration authorities.
Still, Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro questioned Tuesday why the judge, as in other cases involving immigrants, had not sentenced Jabateh to something more in line with the roughly 12 years recommended by the U.S. Probation Office. Then he could have been deported and Liberia could have decided whether to try him for his war crimes, Ambro explained.
“One could look” at Diamond’s sentence,” the circuit judge said, citing the 36-page sentencing opinion recounting testimony of Jabateh’s purported atrocities, “and see, ‘I, today, am sentencing you for crimes committed in another country.’”
While it has not been uncommon for sentencing judges to exceed the sentencing guidelines in other cases involving purported war criminals hiding in the U.S., the punishments have averaged from 10 to 15 years. The longest prison term before Jabateh was 22 years.
“The point that’s being made here is, if you’re a war criminal like this and a leader of war criminals like this, then you face a significant sentence for abusing U.S. immigration law,” Zauzmer said. The judge “wanted to communicate to the abusers of our world that we are not your refuge.”
The Third Circuit panel, which also included Paul Matey and Julio M. Fuentes, did not issue a ruling Tuesday
Jabateh, who was not in court, remains incarcerated at a federal detention center in Union County, Pa.