Sat, 02 Dec 2023

LUXEMBOURG (CN) - Prosecutors told the International Criminal Court in their closing statements on Tuesday that an ex-Islamic militia leader was a "central figure" in widespread torture, rape and sexual slavery in Timbuktu a decade ago.

Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz, the former head of the Islamic police force in the Malian city, is facing a possible life sentence for 13 counts of crimes against humanity before The Hague-based court.

"Al Hassan was an important member of the Islamic Police, indeed a central member of the Islamic Police," Gilles Dutertre, the prosecution's senior trial lawyer, told the three-judge panel.

Wearing a stark white tagelmust, the traditional head and face covering of Tuareg men, Al Hassan listened to the prosecutor's closing arguments without affect.

According to his indictment, the 46-year-old was the de facto leader of the police force in the ancient city, implementing strict religious rules after large parts of Mali fell to Islamic separatist groups following a 2012 coup. A French-led military force ultimately forced them from power in 2013.

"Overnight everything had become haram and forbidden," said one anonymous witness, quoted by the prosecution.

Cities in the western African country, including Timbuktu, were overrun by separatists, who in turn succumbed to Islamist groups that enforced strict religious rules, including banning music, forcing women to wear headscarves and destroying non-Muslim religious sites. The charges against Al Hassan date from April 2012 until January 2013.

Prosecutors showed a video of a much-younger Al Hassan describing the activities of the police, including floggings and beatings for residents who refused to comply with the religious rules.

"Women could no longer go about their normal activities for fear of being tortured," Seydou Doumbia, one of the two legal representatives of victims said in his opening statement in 2022. He represents the 2,196 confirmed victims in the case.

Al Hassan is the first defendant before the court where gender-based violence undergirds the bulk of his charges. Former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda was convicted of rape and sexual slavery in 2019, the first gender-related charge successfully prosecuted at the ICC. But most of his 18 charges focused on other war crimes, including murder, torture and the conscription of child soldiers. The ex-vice president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was also convicted of rape but his conviction was overturned on appeal.

When Al Hassan first appeared before the court in 2019, he refused to enter a plea. Defense lawyers say their client is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of torture at the hands of Malian authorities, but the court has pressed on with the proceedings, which opened in 2021. The national government turned Al Hassan over to ICC officials in 2018.

The ICC decided to move forward with the charges last year, despite arguments from Al Hassan's lawyer that he played too small a role in the conflict to warrant charges at the world's only permanent court for crimes against humanity. The Malian government in Bamako referred the situation to the court in 2012.

"Instead of trawling for small fry, we ask you to release this sardine back into the sea," lead defense counsel Melinda Taylor argued before the ICC's pretrial chamber in July 2019. She will take the floor tomorrow for her final arguments.

Al Hassan is the second person to be charged with crimes relating to the conflict in Mali. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2016 for destroying religious monuments in Mali.

The Hague-based court was established by the Rome Statute in 2002 to prosecute genocide and crimes against humanity that take place in a member state or are committed by a member state. It can also take up a case that is referred to it by the United Nations Security Council.

Source: Courthouse News Service

(File photo).

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