Mali War Crimes Trial Kicks Off in International Criminal Court

The defendant is accused of overseeing the torture, rape and sexual slavery of Timbuktu citizens in 2012 and 2013.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — An accused Islamic militant refused to enter a plea on the 13 counts of crimes against humanity he faces before the International Criminal Court as his trial officially began Tuesday.

The court, in closed session, took 45 minutes to read out the long list of charges, including torture and sexual slavery, against Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, who prosecutors say was the head of the Timbuktu Islamic police force in the West African country of Mali. 

“Today marks the day of the beginning of a long-awaited trial,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the courtroom in The Hague. 

The charges stem from the ongoing conflict in Mali, which saw northern regions of the country fall to rebel groups in 2012.

The defendant appeared in court Tuesday wearing a stark white tagelmust, the traditional head covering for Tuareg men, and a pale blue robe.

Prosecutors say Al Hassan oversaw torture, rape and sexual slavery of citizens in Timbuktu between April 2012 and January 2013. Bensouda told the story of a man, arrested by Al Hassan, who had his hand publicly amputated as punishment and later died.

Alleged jihadist leader Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud appears at the International Criminal Court in April 2018. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool, File)

Al Hassan was handed over to the ICC by Malian authorities in 2018. His defense team claims that he was tortured while in Malian police custody. 

At the outset of the hearing, Al Hassan’s lawyers argued he was not fit to stand trial.

“The defense’s client is experiencing dissociative features that result from severe maltreatment,” said defense attorney Nicoletta Montefusco. She asked the court that the trial be halted while her client underwent a psychological assessment. 

After a break, Presiding Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua denied the motion on the grounds that it was filed at an inappropriate time.

“The trial chamber sees no reason why the defense was unable to file a motion at a preceding moment,” he said, rejecting the argument that the delay was due to the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Sitting in a plexiglass booth, Al Hassan and his security detail wore face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but the handful of others in the courtroom did not. Attendance was restricted due to the outbreak. 

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. 

“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.

The defense appealed that decision but the appeal was rejected by the three-judge panel. 

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.

As the trial was opening, the son of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resigned from his position in parliament, following calls for him and his father to step down. The country held elections earlier this year but the results have been contested. 

Cities in the western African country were overrun by separatists in 2012, 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. A French-led military force ultimately forced them from power in 2013. 

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 the strict religious rules. 

Another 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 may testify against Al Hassan during the trial. 

Hearings will continue on Wednesday, when the prosecution will give its opening statements. The defense and lawyers representing some 800 victims will give their statements in August. 

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