Liberia: Quiet Pursuit of War Criminals Signals Hope Against Impunity

Court drawings by NN visual artist Chase Walker

Monrovia – When jurors in a U.S. Federal Courthouse in the city of Brotherly Love found former Liberian rebel commander Mohammed Jabbateh, aka “Jungle Jabbah,” guilty of two counts of fraud and two counts of perjury for lying to U.S. government officials about his role as a combatant in the Liberian Civil War, last week, it marked the latest in a series of attempts by forces outside Liberia to bring perpetrators of the country’s bloody civil war to book.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

Liberia has come under fire by stakeholders over the government’s failure to implement the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) amid what many see as the high level of impunity with which individuals enlisted in the TRC’s Final Report continue to not only parade the streets but also continue to serve in high public and most often electable posts.

George Boley, the former leader of the Liberia Peace Council, a rebel group blamed for the 1995 massacre of  27 villagers who were ordered to lie down before they slit their throats with cutlasses and raping the women before they killed them”, was elected as a member of the National Legislature representing District No. 2 Grand Gedeh County.

Boley’s election makes him the latest lawmaker to be elected in the national legislature.

The most notable Prince Y. Johnson, whose Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia was responsible for atrocities in the civil war and the brutal slaying of former President Samuel Kanyon Doe has been a member of the Senate since his election in 2005. His standing in Nimba regarded as major vote-rich county has put him in a king-making position in the last three elections with a lot of weight to influence the outcome of the presidential elections.

It is being highly rumoured that he may be on the verge of making a decisive decision to back the opposition Congress for Democratic Change in keeping with the opposition Ganta declaration against that of the ruling Unity Party, proving once again the prowess of his leverage with conventional political institutions.

Adolphus Dolo, who served as an army general during the presidency of former President Charles Taylor, was elected in 2005 to the Senator from Nimba County but lost his seat during the 2014 senatorial elections.

As a junior senator from Nimba, Dolo chaired the statutory committee on Internal Affairs, Governance and Reconciliation.

George Dweh, from the Krahn ethnic group, who formerly operated in the LURD and MODEL warring factions, is a cousin of the former president Samuel Doe who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in this year’s elections. Running on the ticket of the Redemption Democratic Congress (RDC), Dweh accumulated 4,935 votes for 0.3 percent of the votes.

Dweh has been blamed and linked to involvement in the Lutheran Church Massacre as well as the gruesome killing of Johnny Nah and his newly married wife, Farmatta Sherman-Nah at the Sinkor Old Road during the early years of the war, a charge he denied while appearing before the TRC.

The circle of impunity that continues to find alleged perpetrators of war in decision-making roles in post-war Liberia is drawing criticism from key stakeholders concerned that impunity has given birth to a growing sense of injustice amongst Liberians that has led to individuals responsible for committing such atrocities being rewarded with positions of power.

During her last reporting on the Report in 2015, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf spoke of the expansion of a Task Force established to review the legal and constitutional implications of the TRC recommendations to include the National Bar Association.

The TRC was favored over a war tribunal during 2003’s Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) as the best solution to healing the country’s 14 years of civil conflict. It was to address war crimes and gross human rights violations including violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws during the course of the Liberian crisis dating from 1979 to 2003.

With the exception of cases brought against alleged former perpetrators outside Liberia, very little have been made within.

In September 2014, Martina Johnson, a former artillery commander of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a major rebel group in Liberia’s first civil war, from 1989 to 1997, was arrested and indicted in Belgium for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two months later, Swiss authorities  arrested Alieu Kosiah, a commander in the opposing rebel group, United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) on similar charges. ULIMO represented a different tribal community and was opposed to the NPFL politically and militarily. Both investigations and arrests were prompted by the GJRP’s documentation of crimes and criminal complaints filed on behalf of victims, with Civitas Maxima’s assistance.

Much of these cases are being driven with interest by Civitas Maxima, a Geneva-based legal advocacy organisation in collaboration with the Liberian non-government organisation Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) which has been documenting alleged war crimes.

The Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) is a Liberia-based non-profit, non-governmental organization that documents war related crimes in Liberia and, where possible, seeks justice for victims of said crimes, with the full consent of the victims.

Separately, former President Charles Taylor has been jailed for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. A special UN-backed court found him guilty in 2012 of supplying weapons to the Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for so-called blood diamonds.

Taylor’s son, Charles McArthur Emmanuel, – cite_note-1  also known as Chuckie, is also behind bars. The former commander of the infamously violent Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) commonly known in Liberia as the “Demon Forces”, is currently serving a 97-year sentence back in Florida for his role in human rights violations carried out by the ATU.

For those still nursing the loss of family, friends and loved ones as a result of a brutal civil war, Liberia’s reluctance to bring those responsible for war-time atrocities is now being eclipsed by efforts from outside.

But Ambassador Tiina Intelmann, the former head of European Union Delegation to Liberia, in a recent FrontPageAfrica interview said, “at the end of the day it is up to Liberia as a nation itself and to the  government to decide what they want to do, how they want to do things.”

The departed envoy added:  “Having been involved with international criminal justice, I have also learned that sometimes when the jury delivers a guilty verdict, it orders the person to apologize. So, there are all kinds of ways of healing, not only putting another person in prison but also a Palava hut or a simple apology. I think I am old enough to understand that the world is not black and white but clearly more would need to be done for Liberia, for you yourselves to feel comfortable. I have to say that Liberia is not the only country that has had a very difficult history, when I look back at my own country, we were subjected to 50 years of a very brutal regime where we had no say about our future. A lot of people were also killed. There were extrajudicial killings, deportations. When all of that ended, there was accumulated anger and frustration among the population. A lot of nations all over the world have had to heal, the better you do it, the more deeply you do it, the better it is for the nation.”

As Jabbateh await his sentencing, efforts are now being shifted to upcoming trials of Martina Johnson and Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, the former Defense Spokesman for Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia who arrested in April 2014, argued through his attorneys that he had amended his citizenship application to include his participation in the Taylor regime. Woewiyou is currently under House arrest.

Like Woewiyou, Jabbateh also provided false information to U.S. immigration authorities and procured asylum in the United States by fraud, the prosecution had to prove that he was a high-ranking rebel commander during the first Liberian civil war and committed criminal actions while in that position.

Prior to immigrating to the United States, Jabbateh served as a battalion commander for the rebel group ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy), one of the key warring factions that fought against Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) during Liberia’s first civil war (1989-1996).

Jabbateh’s guilty verdict last week, marks the first time that Liberian victims were able to testify about their experience of the atrocities committed during the first Liberian civil war in a public and fair trial. It was also the first trial of a former commander of the armed group ULIMO.

Hassan Bility, head of GJRP says the first verdict has given some measure of redress to Liberian victims who have been yearning for justice. “This case shows that Liberians do not have to accept the status quo of impunity in Liberia. Victims want justice and we will continue to support them in their pursuit of accountability within and outside of Liberia, independent of any tribal affiliation or political influence. This is only the beginning. As a survivor of this war and advocate for justice, I want to thank the witnesses for their courage, thank the Liberian people for their cooperation and support during the trial and thank the Liberian media for their wide coverage”.

Cllr. Jerome Verdier, the former head of the TRC says Jabbateh’s verdict signals that the wheels of justice will not stop rolling until victim’s justice becomes a living reality in Liberia. “We extol the heroic efforts of the US Government and prosecutors who assembled bundles of credible evidence and witnesses victimized by the convicted perpetrator and his war machine.”