Timbuktu Malian jihadist faces war crimes court

web_photo_the_hague_02112017

The Hague in the Netherlands

The Hague in the Netherlands

web_photo_the_hague_02112017

The Hague in the Netherlands

The Hague in the Netherlands

THE HAGUE - A Malian jihadist appeared for the first time before an international war crimes judge on Wednesday, accused of demolishing Timbuktu&39;s fabled shrines, as well as rape, torture and sex slavery.

READ: Amnesty calls on Mali to probe extrajudicial killings

Speaking in Arabic, Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud confirmed his identity and date of birth at a brief hearing at the International Criminal Court and said he had been informed of the charges against him and his rights.

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&39;t adhere to it," alleges Hassan&39;s arrest warrant, unveiled at the weekend by the court.

Whippings, enslavement

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 practices," 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&39;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.

READ: 8 dead in Mali ethnic clashes

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.

With a closely-shaven head and a small goatee beard, Hassan appeared in a navy blue suit, with a pink shirt and brown diamond-pattered tie.

He listened carefully and calmly to the brief proceedings, telling judge Marc Perrin de Brichambaut that it was "not necessary" to read out the charges.

His only complaint, before the court was adjourned until September 24, was that "I have been detained in a room with a camera."

Defence lawyer Yasser Hassan said the camera was "really harming his dignity and also his privacy."

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&39;s only permanent war crimes court.

In the court&39;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.

God&39;s work

Hassan&39;s arrest has been welcomed in Timbuktu. "It&39;s a very important step in the fight against impunity," said Moctar Mariko, head of the Malian Human Rights Association (AMDH).

READ: Mali militia claims it has US military vehicle

"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&39;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&39;s centre, where local grievances are exploited by the Islamists in a region awash with guns.