The Hague (AFP) – A Malian jihadist was to appear for the first time Wednesday before international war crimes judges, accused of demolishing Timbuktu’s fabled shrines, as well as rape, torture and sex slavery.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud will be asked to confirm his identity and be told of the charges against him when he appears at the International Criminal Court.
The hearing at 1300 GMT in The Hague comes after Hassan was captured over the weekend by Malian authorities and swiftly transferred to the Netherlands late Saturday.
Prosecutors allege the 40-year-old “committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Timbuktu, Mali, between April 2012 and January 2013.”
A member of the Ansar Dine jihadist group, Hassan was the “de facto chief of the Islamic police” in Timbuktu, the ICC said.
The armed groups which swept across the remote northern Mali region in 2012 seizing control of the UNESCO-protected site “imposed their vision of religion, through terror, on a local population who didn’t adhere to it,” says Hassan’s arrest warrant, unveiled at the weekend by the court.
Hassan had about 40 Islamic police under his control and “played a leading role in committing crimes, as well as religious and sexist persecution”.
“All infractions” of the strict Islamic laws were “punished by whippings, torture during detention and the destruction of sites devoted to religious practises,” the warrant says, adding that Hassan himself took part in the lashings.
He also allegedly “participated in the policy of forced marriages which victimised the female inhabitants of Timbuktu and led to repeated rapes and the sexual enslavement of women and girls,” the court added.
Dubbed “The City of 333 saints”, Timbuktu’s holy shrines were built in the 15th and 16th centuries when it was revered as a centre of Islamic learning and a spiritual hub.
Extremists, however, see its moderate form of Islam as idolatrous. The jihadists were angered by the long-held practice of worshipping at the shrines and mausoleums of Muslim saints.
– God’s work’ –
Hassan is the second Islamic extremist to face trial at the ICC for the destruction of Timbuktu, following a 2016 landmark ruling at the world’s only permanent war crimes court.
In the court’s first case to focus on cultural destruction, the ICC judges found Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi guilty of directing attacks on the UNESCO world heritage site in 2012. He was sentenced to nine years in jail.
Hassan’s arrest has been welcomed in Timbuktu. “It’s a very important step in the fight against impunity,” said Moctar Mariko, head of the Malian Human Rights Association (AMDH).
“Justice must be done, and the other criminals hunted down, arrested and tried,” he told AFP, adding that there was overwhelming witness evidence against Hassan.
A former Timbuktu MP said: “This is God’s work. He is not sleeping, but keeping an eye on Timbuktu.”
“The jihadists committed profanity against the tombs. They raped women. Now it is their turn to be judged,” he added, asking not to be named.
The unrest in the former French colony stems from a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north.
Although French forces removed the Al-Qaeda-linked groups in 2012 from places such as Timbuktu, the groups have morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.
That insurgency has since spread to the country’s centre, where local grievances are exploited by the Islamists in a region awash with guns.