ICC prosecutes Islamist militant on groundbreaking gender-based charges
The international criminal court in the Hague has launched a potentially groundbreaking new prosecution for the crime of persecution on the grounds of gender, seeking a lengthy jail sentence for an Islamist militant accused of forcing hundreds of women into sexual slavery.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, 40, was transferred to the court’s custody earlier this month from , where he had been held by local authorities for more than a year.
The former extremist fighter is accused of a long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture, extrajudicial punishments and participation in a policy of forced marriage, which the court argues “”.
Al Hassan’s alleged offences were committed during the occupation of Timbuktu by radical Islamist groups almost six years ago.
The ICC has only ever attempted one prosecution involving the charge of persecution on the grounds of gender, but the charges were dropped and the case did not reach trial.
Melinda Reed, executive director of Women’s Initiatives for Justice, a civil organisation based at the Hague that focuses on the ICC, said the Al Hassan case was “very encouraging”.
“It is another step in a positive evolution,” she added. “Every decision matters. We are writing the jurisprudence of the future now, so every case and every step is extremely important with regards to gender-based and sexual crimes.”
Al Hassan appeared for the first time in court last week but did not address the allegations against him, instead complaining about the conditions of his detention. “I was detained in a single room with a camera,” he told the judge after confirming his identity.
Al Hassan’s duty counsel told the court his client believed the circumstances of his detention were “harming his dignity and his privacy”.
Fatou Bensouda, the lead ICC prosecutor, said she hoped the trial of Al Hassan would “address the untold suffering inflicted upon the Malian population and what they hold dear as a people”.
“The arrest and transfer of the suspect … to the custody of the ICC sends a strong message to all those, wherever they are, who commit crimes which shock the conscience of humanity,” she said.
Timbuktu fell to a coalition of Tuareg rebels and Islamist militant factions, including 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 .
Al Hassan joined Ansar Dine shortly before its occupation of the city and led a force of religious police, prosecutors say.
Born in a small village just 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 jihadists evacuated Timbuktu when French soldiers advanced in January 2013. Al Hassan fled Mali; according to court documents, he later rejoined his former comrades and was arrested a year ago by French troops after a gun battle in the north of Mali.
The trial is only the second of an Islamist militant at the ICC, which is funded by governments and regarded as a court of last resort.
It appears likely that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a senior militant in Timbuktu during the occupation, who was for his role in the destruction of monuments, will testify as a witness against Al Hassan.
The ICC has steadily broadened its remit since its foundation in 2002, with an increasing focus on violence against women.
One breakthrough was the 2016 trial of , in which rape and sexual violence ranked as the most prominent charges for the first time.
In the same year, , a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including forced marriage.
“The transfer of Al Hassan to the Hague is a relief for the victims, especially at a time when the situation in the centre and the north [of Mali], including Timbuktu, is deteriorating, with a renewed outbreak of acts of violence attributed to armed terrorist groups,” said Moctar Mariko, president of the Malian Association for Human Rights and a lawyer for victims in the country.
A succession of forces have tried to regain control of Mali’s vast northern plains from extremist organisations. The latest of these, , is composed of soldiers from the five countries affected by the crisis: Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Operation Barkhane, a counterterrorism force made up of several thousand well-trained French troops based in the Sahel region, has struggled to achieve decisive results, while the UN peacekeeping mission, , is limited in terms of the terrain it can control.
The ICC will hold a hearing to confirm the charges against Al Hassan in September. A successful prosecution would be a boost to the court, which has been heavily criticised for its expense and patchy success.
Since 2002, ICC prosecutors have indicted 39 individuals including: the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony; the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir; the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta; the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; and the former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo.
The court, which has a budget of £128m this year and more than 900 staff members from approximately 100 states, has issued verdicts in just six cases. and one acquitted.
Al Hassan’s case will be of little help in rebutting the frequent accusation of bias against African countries.