ICC prosecutors say Malian rebel was 'enthusiastic' war crimes perpetrator

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) -Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday told the trial of a Malian Islamist rebel he was a key figure in the "blatant persecution" of the residents of Timbuktu and was an enthusiastic participant in war crimes.

Prosecutors say Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz was a central figure in the Ansar Dine Islamist group which controlled every aspect of daily life in Timbuktu after its 2012 takeover.

Al Hassan headed an Islamic police force that terrorized the population of Timbuktu, especially women, who were subjected to rape, forced marriages and sexual slavery, the prosecutors say.

"What we are dealing with is a case of voluntary, should I even say enthusiastic and jubilant, participation in a criminal activity shrouded in religion," ICC deputy prosecutor Mame Niang said in his closing statement.

Lawyers for Al Hassan, who is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, have previously argued that he was wrongly singled out for prosecution and painted him as someone trying to maintain order in a chaotic situation after the rebel takeover. Al Hassan has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His lawyers do not deny he was a member of Ansar Dine.

After Ansar Dine took over Timbuktu it tried to impose sharia Islamic law. According to prosecutors they specifically targeted women who were banned from wearing jewellery, had to be covered from head to toe and were not allowed to be alone with men they were not married to.

The rebel group also encouraged their fighters to marry local women but prosecutors said these were forced sham marriages used to subject the women of Timbuktu to rape and sexual slavery.

The al Qaeda-linked fighters also used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter earthen tombs and centuries-old shrines reflecting Timbuktu's Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the "City of 333 Saints".

Another Islamist rebel was given a nine-year sentence by the ICC in 2016 after pleading guilty to participating in destruction of Timbuktu's religious monuments.

The ICC, the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, has been examining events in Mali since 2012. French and Malian troops pushed the rebels back the following year.

Al Hassan's defence is expected to present their closing statements on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, Editing by William Maclean, Alexandra Hudson)