THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – The International Criminal Court heard closing arguments Wednesday in a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to hold a trial over war crimes charges against an accused Islamic militant from Mali.
The charges against Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz are historic for The Hague-based ICC as they focus primarily on gender-based crimes.
“The targeting and persecution of women was such that it became emblematic of the physical and moral violence inflicted on all residents of Timbuktu,” Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening statements.
The proceedings, which opened last week, are being held to decide if evidence is strong enough to try Al Hassan with rape, torture, sexual slavery and other crimes stemming from atrocities committed in Mali in 2012.
Cities in the western African country, including the ancient city of 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. He is accused of being responsible for torture, rape and sexual slavery of Timbuktu citizens between April 2012 and January 2013.
Al Hassan sat expressionless Wednesday, wearing a decorative white tunic, while the nine-person prosecution team gave their closing statements. Only Gilles Dutertre, the senior trial lawyer for the prosecution, addressed the court.
For slightly longer than his allotted 30 minutes, Dutertre outlined the prosecution’s evidence that Al Hassan played a key role in the atrocities as the chief of the Islamic police force in Timbuktu and was a member of the militant Islamic group, Ansar Dine.
Following the prosecution, Mayombo Kassongo, wearing a black robe and white band, as all lawyers and court participants are required to do, spoke on behalf of the 880 approved victims. He denied that the prosecution of Al Hassan was a prosecution of religion, as the defense had claimed during its opening arguments.
“This is not a trial of Islamic law,” he told the ICC judges.
The final presentation was given by Melinda Taylor who, together with her three-person, all-female defense team, dismissed the evidence before the court as a few egregious examples rather than a plan to carry out atrocities in Timbuktu. Al Hassan’s defense is paid for by the ICC as he has been found to be indigent.
Taylor again argued that the case was rooted in discrimination against Islam and that Al Hassan was an important member of his community.
“Instead of trawling for small fry, we ask you to release this sardine back into the sea,” she concluded.
Both sides are allowed to submit further written statements within the next month. From there, the ICC can decide there is sufficient evidence to move forward with a trial, decline to proceed and release Al Hassan, or request that the prosecution gather more evidence. The court’s Pre-Trial Chamber will deliver a decision within 60 days.
Al Hassan will remain detained in The Hague, where he has been since last year when he was transferred to the court’s custody by the Malian government.