ICC prosecution: Mali extremist the ‘embodiment’ of brutal religious police

Trial begins in The Hague of Ansar Dine figure accused of war crimes during the extremist group's occupation of Timbuktu

FILE PHOTO: Malian Islamist militant Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud sits in the courtroom of the ICC (International Criminal Court) during a hearing at the Hague in the Netherlands, July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/Pool/File Photo

An alleged Ansar Dine extremist has been described as the “embodiment” of a cruel and pervasive religious police that plagued Timbuktu for nearly a year in 2012.

At the start of the Malian’s trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecutors on Tuesday outlined how the defendant had been the “key and zealous commissioner” of the group’s Islamic police in the town.

Ansar Dine's interpretation of Hizbah was responsible for dispensing cruel and violent punishments, such as public floggings, amputations, forced marriages and rapes, the court heard, with the defendant, Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, playing a central role in the persecution of civilians.

The northern Malian city, a centre of Islamic scholarship for centuries, was overrun by Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in April 2012. Their reign of terror, characterised by violently enforced Islamist law and iconoclasm, ended in Timbuktu almost a year later following a French military intervention in the country.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that the variety of new prohibitions and laws were “unmatched in cruelty”.

“The institutions established with Ansar Dine and AQIM and the men such Al Hassan, mercilessly punished the inhabitants of Timbuktu who were merely exercising their fundamental rights when they didn't bow to the new diktats,” Ms Bensouda said.

She focused on the gender-based crimes carried out against women and girls in Timbuktu, crimes the details of which she said were “unbearable and particularly horrid".

The defendant had, Ms Bensouda said, meted out some of these punishments directly.

“Women had become the primary targets,” she told the court. “Women and girls were pursued into their very homes and they were abused, punished, beaten imprisoned and subjected to corporal punishment.”

The prosecutor also outlined how the Al Qaeda-linked extremists had coerced the women and girls into forced marriages and committed sexually violent acts against them.

Al Hassan appeared at the court in The Hague in blue robes, a white Tuareg head covering and a face mask. He declined to enter pleas for the 13 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but did confirm that he understood the charges against him.

(FILES) In this file photograph taken on April 4, 2018, alleged jihadist leader Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud (C) enters the courtroom prior to his initial appearance on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.  A Malian jihadist police chief committed "unimaginable crimes" during a reign of terror in the fabled shrine city of Timbuktu, prosecutors told the International Criminal Court at the start of his trial July 14, 2020. / AFP / POOL / Peter Dejong

As the hearing began, defence lawyer Nicoletta Montefusco argued that her client was unfit to stand trial due to post-traumatic stress disorder. His lawyers had previously told the court that Al Hassan was tortured while in custody in Mali before he was sent to The Hague.

They asked to suspend the proceedings on the eve of the trial because Covid-19 restrictions had prevented them from meeting their client and seeing his mental condition for four months. Judges declined to halt the trial but did call for a medical assessment.

Fighters with the Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu AP 

The trial is the second case at the ICC linked to Ansar Dine's brutal occupation of Timbuktu. A member of the group, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for attacking nine mausoleums and a mosque door in the city in 2012.