THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – The accused enforcer of a separatist Muslim group that banned music and destroyed non-Muslim religious sites sat quietly in a white Tuareg robe Wednesday as his lawyers challenged the war crimes evidence against him at the United Nations International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz first appeared before the ICC, the United Nations’ highest court, on Monday for the start of the week-long confirmation of charges hearing.
The charges stem from an ongoing conflict in Mali, which saw northern regions of the country fall to rebel groups in 2012.
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.
According to the charges against him, Al Hassan was a member of a militant Islamic group and became the de facto leader of Timbuktu’s police force, overseeing the enforcement of these rules.
The ICC has now heard from both the prosecution and the defense to determine if there is enough evidence to go forward with a trial of the 42-year-old Al Hassan for torture, rape, sexual slavery and other charges in a historically unprecedented case focusing primarily on gender-based accusations.
Melinda Reed, executive director of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gender justice at the ICC, called the charges against Al Hass “very encouraging.”
The prosecution and representatives of victims were scheduled to present their side of the case Tuesday and Wednesday, but testimony continued into Thursday morning as the prosecution ran over its time allotment.
The prosecution team took nine hours and ten minutes, so the same amount of time was given to the defense. Lead defense attorney Melinda Taylor finished early Thursday afternoon after only several hours but will resume next week.
“The prosecution has thrown up a smoke screen to draw your attention away from the scant evidence,” she told the three-judge panel.
Starting Monday, the nine-person prosecution team outlined evidence of Al Hassan’s participation in the alleged crimes, sitting directly across from Al Hassan, his three-person, all-female defense team and an interpreter tasked with translating the English and French proceedings into Arabic for the defendant.
Lawyers for both sides wore identical black robes with white bands while the three-judge panel donned a similar ensemble but in blue. The defendant has stood out, wearing a stark white tagelmust, the traditional head covering for Tuareg men, and a white robe during the proceedings until Thursday, when he appeared in a dark blue suit.
During its presentations this week, the prosecution repeatedly closed the hearing to the public and press as they presented graphic evidence. Sessions are closed to protect the identities of the victims. Among other pieces of evidence, the prosecution showed a video of Al Hassan allegedly flogging two men for drinking alcohol.
The prosecution heavily emphasized that Al Hassan did not need to be in charge of the atrocities to still be held responsible for them.
“It is not necessary to show that he was the most senior person involved in these crimes,” said prosecution lawyer Nicole Samson.
In much briefer statements Thursday, the defense team presented its case and argued that Al Hassan was “loved and respected by the people of Timbuktu.”
They called into question the use of anonymous witnesses by the prosecution, criticized the prosecution for failing to provide evidence in a timely fashion, and implied Al Hassan was being prosecuted for his religion rather than his actions.
“Islamic law is one of the principal legal systems of the world,” Taylor said.
Much of the prosecution’s arguments focused on connecting Al Hassan to Ansar Dine, a militant Islamic group, and his alleged role as the de facto head of the Islamic religious police in Timbuktu, emphasizing that the case is not about prosecuting religion.
The 880 designated alleged victims did not appear before the ICC themselves. Instead, they are represented by three legal representatives: Seydou Doumbia, Mayombo Kassongo, and Fidel Nsita Luvengika. This is typical of ICC trials, where there are often large numbers of victims and traveling to the Netherlands-based court may be challenging. Victims must apply to be represented during the hearings.
The prosecution has been criticized for going after Al Hassan, who is considered to be a lower level perpetrator. He is only the second person to be prosecuted for crimes in Mali and human rights advocates are hoping to see more cases arise from the conflict.
“We expect that these prosecutions of perpetrators at the intermediate level will pave the way for indicting and trying top-level perpetrators,” said Drissa Traoré, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
One other Malian man, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, pleaded guilty before the ICC in 2016 for destroying cultural sites and was sentenced to nine years in prison. He is expected to testify against Al Hassan, should the case move forward to a trial.
The pretrial hearing will finish next week when the defense rests.
Molly Quell is based in the Hague, Netherlands.