Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud accused of torture and extrajudicial punishments
Jason Burke Africa correspondent – The Guardian
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud forced hundreds of Malian women into sexual slavery. Photograph: AP
The trial of a former Islamic militant who allegedly forced hundreds of women into sexual slavery has opened at the international criminal court, where he has been accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and in a first, persecution on the grounds of gender.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, 42, was transferred to the court’s custody more than two years ago from Mali, where he had been held by local authorities for more than a year.
Prosecutors in The Hague have accused him of torture, extrajudicial punishments and participation in a policy of forced marriage, which “led to repeated rapes and sexual enslavement of women and girls”.
He also been charged with persecution on the grounds of gender, which was welcomed as a “historic step” and a “milestone for justice” by campaigners.
The alleged offences were committed during a six-month period when the Malian city of Timbuktu was occupied and ruled by radical Islamist groups in 2012 and 2013.
Al Hassan remained impassive throughout the early part of the hearing, which was televised, speaking in Arabic only to return the greeting of Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua and say he understood the charges against him.
Asked to enter a plea to each of the charges he refused, telling judges 13 times: “I cannot answer that question.”
His defence lawyers told the court al Hassan was suffering form post-traumatic stress disorder and was unfit to stand trial. Restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic had meant a full psychological assessment had not been carried out, they argued.
Timbuktu fell to a coalition of Tuareg rebels and Islamist militant factions, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and a local group called Ansar Dine, in mid-2012. They enforced a harsh version of sharia law in areas under their control, banning music, forcing women to wear the burqa, preventing girls from attending school and demolishing saints’ graves.
Al Hassan joined Ansar Dine shortly before its occupation of the city and led a force of religious police, prosecutors say.
Born in a village north of Timbuktu, Al Hassan is also alleged to have worked closely with the religious tribunals set up by the occupiers to impose a harsh version of Islamic law, and is accused of participating in the torture of detainees.
The extremists withdrew from Timbuktu when French soldiers advanced in January 2013. Al Hassan fled Mali; according to court documents, he later rejoined his former comrades and was eventually detained by French troops after a gun battle in the north of Mali.
Al-Hassan’s defence team have previously argued that Al Hassan was too minor an actor to justify trial at the ICC, that the alleged crimes were unrepresentative and that the prosecution unfairly targeted the Islamic faith.
The trial is only the second of an Islamist militant at the ICC. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a senior militant in Timbuktu during the occupation, was sentenced to nine years in prison by the ICC in 2016 for his role in the destruction of world-famous religious shrines and monuments in Timbuktu. Mahdi pleaded guilty to the crime and apologised. He said he had been overtaken by evil spirits and urged Muslims not to follow his example.
Mali remains plagued by Islamic militancy and has been plunged into a political crisis in recent weeks, further undermining efforts to restore security by local troops, a large French force and UN peacekeepers.
A successful prosecution of Al Hassan would be a boost to the ICC, but is unlikely to end criticism from some quarters. The US has threatened an economic and legal offensive against the institution following a recent decision by judges to open an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan.
Melinda Reed, the executive director of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, a civil organisation based at The Hague that focuses on the ICC, said the Al Hassan case was groundbreaking not just because of the use of the charge of persecution based on gender for the first time, but also because it included non-sexual violence too.
“The charging documents include cases where women were hunted down and detained in inhumane conditions for the sole reason of wearing a headscarf considered as too beautiful or not wearing gloves at the market,” Reed said.
“In addition, the case includes the crime of forced marriage as distinct from sexual slavery. This gives recognition to the gendered dimension of forced marriage, separate from sexual violence, as well as recognising the social stigma faced by victims.”
Reed said the case was a good example of prosecutors using multiple charges and could create an important legal precedent.
“In many cases, persecution is charged on ethnic or religious grounds without the recognition that persecution can be seen on both religious and gender grounds, as seen [here],” she said.