Trial Day 2: Opening Statements and Witness Testimony Begins
The Jungle Jabbah trial began on Tuesday morning with both parties giving opening statements. Assistant United States Attorney Nelson Thayer outlined the government's case and the evidence they intend to present against the former ULIMO rebel commander. Thayer stated that the evidence would show that during the first civil war, Jungle Jabbah, personally and with ULIMO fighters acting on his order and under his command "looted, raped, mutilated, murdered, and even committed ritual cannibalism against villagers they attacked." According to the prosecution, when the attacks on the villages were over, Jungle Jabbah ordered the female survivors of those villages, some of whom were teenagers, to become sex slaves for ULIMO fighters – and if they refused, the punishment was death. Any male survivors were forced to work in diamond and gold mines under the guard of armed child soldiers loyal to Jungle Jabbah – and also faced death if they refused.
Specifically, the government stated that they would present documentary and testimonial evidence showing that Jungle Jabbah lied when he applied for asylum in 1998 and indicated that he worked as a bodyguard with the Special Security Services (SSS) at the executive mansion in Monrovia during the first civil war. Thayer further stated that the jury would hear photojournalists, SSS employees, and other individuals who were present at the executive mansion during the first civil war testify that Jungle Jabbah was never a member of the SSS or employed as a bodyguard.
Acknowledging that two decades and thousands of miles separate the jury from the context of this case, Thayer urged them "not to consider the evidence in a vacuum" and stated that they would hear stipulations to provide historical background.
According to Thayer, the government will show that Jungle Jabbah's statements to U.S. immigration were false by presenting survivors who will testify about what they endured at the hands of Jungle Jabbah and his ULIMO fighters. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, Thayer told the jury that the one thing the witnesses have in common is their "fateful contact with Mohammed Jabbateh." Thayer stated, "you will see the faces of trauma" and will hear about the "common methods of brutality Jungle Jabbah and fighters used," such as the potentially fatal “duck fa tabae” -- a brutal method of binding one’s arms so tightly behind their back that the elbows touch from behind.
"The U.S. government has a gatekeeping role to play when foreign citizens want to settle here," said Thayer. The questions contained in immigration documents are designed to give applicants like Jabbateh a choice -- tell the truth and potentially risk losing residency or lie and risk prosecution for perjury and fraud in immigration documents. Thayer said the evidence would show that Jabbateh chose to lie on multiple occasions: when he filled out his written application for asylum in 1998; during his oral interview with immigration authorities in connection with his asylum application in 1999; on his application for permanent resident status; and in his oral interview with immigration officials in 2011 for a Greencard. “You can’t commit heinous war crimes in your home country and then come here and ask to stay and lie about it,” Thayer warned.
Mohammed Jabbateh's attorney, Gregory Pagano, began his opening statement by agreeing that this case is about “lies” but suggested that Jabbateh wasn’t the one telling them. "Who's lying, the government's witnesses or Mohammed Jabbateh?" Pagano argued. He told the jury that the case started as a tip and that after that, the "avalanche of the U.S. government came crashing on Mr. Jabbateh's head." According to Pagano, the evidence and the witnesses came forward when the U.S. government went to Liberia to interview the tipster. "All of the sudden" there were allegations against Mr. Jabbateh 15 years after the alleged crimes took place. Pagano argued that a reasonable person would ask, "where were these people and allegations" 15 years ago? Pagano stated that his client has never hidden or failed to disclose who he is and that he provided immigration authorities with an identification card and documents when he arrived in the U.S. and freely admitted that he went by the name “Jungle Jabbah,” which he claimed was a childhood nickname and not a war moniker. It was "not until the tip years later that [Jabbateh's] mortal enemies came to light," said Pagano.
Specifically, the defense alleged that all of the witnesses are people who have political or religious motives to testify against Mr. Jabbateh. Pagano faulted the prosecution for not providing corroborating physical evidence of the war crime accusations made against Jabbateh and argued that in a case of mass killings one should expect physical evidence such as forensic remains, death certificates or grave markers to be presented. Pagano also faulted the government for not producing any UN or U.S. military witnesses even though these groups were present in Liberia during the civil war.
He told the jury that Jabbateh fled Liberia and sought asylum in the U.S. to escape persecution, torture, and fear of being killed because of his tribal affiliations after he was imprisoned for three weeks in Liberia. "He has scars to prove what happened to him . . . all my client wants from this process is the fairness he did not receive in Liberia," said Pagano.
The prosecution's first witness testified on Tuesday afternoon and told the court about his extensive work as a photojournalist in Liberia during the civil war, including how he shot several noteworthy photographs of Jabbateh and other fighters. The witness provided historical background for the jury, discussing the various warring factions and his contact with the groups through his role as a photographer for different news agencies. Asked by the prosecutor what life was like in Monrovia at the end of 1989, the witness stated "it was total anarchy, chaotic," people were afraid to go outside and get food or water because people were getting killed in the streets.
The witness testified that he first met Jungle Jabbah when he went to a press conference held by Alhaji Kromah in Tubmanburg. Kromah had all of his commanders lined up behind him while he made his statement and Mohammed Jabbateh was among them, said the witness. The government admitted several photos into evidence through the witness, two of which were photographs that the witness had taken of Jabbateh on that day. Testifying that he did not know Jungle Jabbah before he took the photos, the witness stated that he heard Jabbateh's "boys calling him ‘Jungle Jabbah’" and that "his influence was quite revealing with the men around him." He also identified several individuals depicted in the photographs, including those he believed to be young boys brandishing weapons.
In addition to identifying Jungle Jabbah in the photographs he'd taken at Kromah's press conference, the witness also identified what appeared to be young ULIMO fighters in the photographs with Jungle Jabbah. The witness also told the court that the second time he saw Jabbateh was sometime later at a second press conference in Tubmanburg. The witness stated that he decided to take a short walk while he was waiting for the press conference to begin and ran into Jabbateh. He further said that Jabbateh recognized him and started asking him about the photographs the witness had previously taken of him.
The witness also described several other ULIMO commanders and discussed his knowledge of the SSS. He testified that SSS members were always smartly dressed and clean-cut. They wore uniforms or were otherwise well-groomed in neat, professional plain-clothes. The prosecutors asked about the attire that Jabbateh wore in particular photographs, including combat fatigues and dreadlocked hair, and the witness confirmed that SSS members never presented in that style. After admitting photos depicting actual SSS members, the government asked the witness whether he ever encountered Jungle Jabbah during his visits to the executive mansion in his capacity as a journalist, to which the witness answered that he had not.
At the end of the witness's direct testimony, he stated that he had last encountered the defendant in 2011 in the U.S. at a shipping company in Pennsylvania. The witness positively identified Jabbateh for the jury, walking up to the defense table and stating "it's been a long time, I want to make sure" before looking the defendant in the eye and confirming that he recognized him to be Mohammed "Jungle Jabbah" Jabbateh.
On cross-examination, defense counsel Pagano pressed the witness about his encounter with Jabbateh in 2011 and his photographs of ULIMO fighters. Pagano asked the witness about the title and rank of various ULIMO commanders, including Jungle Jabbah, but the witness was not able to recall precise rankings or titles. Asked about Jungle Jabbah's command position in 1992-1993, the witness said: "all I knew was that he was a rebel commander and he had troops following him" and explained that the rebel factions did not have the same structure or formal hierarchy as a traditional military.
On further cross-examination, the witness admitted that he had never seen Jabbateh commit any human rights violations, but explained that he had never seen Jabbateh “on the front lines.” When asked if Jabbateh had ever threatened him, the witness responded in the affirmative. But Pagano pointed out that the witness had never before disclosed that alleged fact in prior meetings with investigators.
Finally, the witness confirmed that he belonged to the Loma ethnic group, or tribe, which defense counsel pointed out had fought against Jabbateh’s ULIMO group and later allied with the ULIMO-J faction, the enemy of Jabbateh’s ULIMO-K command.
On re-direct, the witness stated that he held no animosity towards the Mandingos (Jabbateh’s ethnic group) even though he (the witness) was a member of the Loma ethnic group. The witness stated, "I don't hold animosity against Mandingos or any other person as a Christian.”
The government's second witness began her testimony towards the end of the day on Tuesday. The witness stated that while she was in Camp Israel with her aunt, she saw soldiers entering the town and shooting. She testified that the soldiers told everyone in the town to come outside their homes. Once outside, Mohammed Jabbateh called her over, and she heard the soldiers calling him “Chief Jabbateh.” She testified that she later heard him called “Jungle Jabbah.”
"The very night I got captured he made me be his wife and slept with me," she said. When asked by the prosecution what Jungle Jabbah said to her, she testified, "he said, ‘you will be with me tonight, and you will be my woman.’” The witness testified that she was scared because Jungle Jabbah had guns and so she followed him, slept with him, and performed other duties for him such as cooking. She stayed with him for several days and traveled with him to the next town. The prosecution asked her whether she was always with him and if there were other soldiers there, to which she responded, "yes, soldiers would be around even if he wasn't around." She confirmed that some of the soldiers were small boys and that everyone, including the boys, carried guns. The witness testified that while she was with Jabbateh and his group, she heard Jabbateh ask the villagers about diamonds and saw Jabbateh and his men tie up the villagers using the “duck fa tabae” method of painfully binding their arms behind their backs.
The government's second witness will continue testifying Wednesday morning.