PHILADELPHIA – 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.
But for nearly the last two decades, Mohammed Jabbateh has lived a quiet life in the U.S. after being granted asylum by the federal government — a protection that will come into question on Monday as Jabbateh goes on trial on charges that he lied about his past on immigration documents so that he could enter the country.
"This defendant allegedly committed unspeakable crimes in his home country, brutalizing numerous innocent victims. He then sought to escape to the United States where he lied about his criminal background on federal immigration forms," then-U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger wrote in a statement after Jabbateh was arrested and his indictment unsealed in 2016.
Prosecutors have marshalled several witnesses who in court documents recalled their interactions with Jabbateh, 51, when he was a high-ranking member of The United Liberation Movement for Democracy and its splinter faction 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.
Jabbateh's attorney, Gregory Pagano, did not immediately respond to messages left at his office but a court document filed after his arrest last year states that Jabbateh vehemently denies that he committed or ordered the violent acts described in the indictment.
"He is peaceful, deeply religious and he is intensely loyal to the United States of America," the court document reads, adding that Jabbateh has a home outside of Philadelphia and owns a business that packs shipping containers. It also said he has no criminal record.
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."