THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS – A Malian jihadi accused of demolishing Timbuktu’s fabled shrines also imposed a reign of terror on local residents, who were “scared out of their minds,” the International Criminal Court heard on Monday.
Prosecutors accuse Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud of war crimes and crimes against humanity after fundamentalists exploited a Tuareg uprising in 2012 to take over cities in Mali’s volatile north.
“Al Hassan played an essential and undeniable role in the system of persecution established by the armed groups … in Timbuktu,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.
“Make no mistake, Al Hassan was … a key figure within the armed groups and the system put in place to control the city,” she said, describing him as de-facto chief of the Islamic police in the city.
The jihadi police imposed draconian measures on the city’s residents who lived in constant fear of “despicable” violence and repression, said Bensouda.
She named one example where a man had his hand amputated after he was accused of petty theft.
“He was tied to a chair before a gathered crowd in a square and his hand was chopped off with a machete. A member of the armed group then held up the bloody hand as a signal to others.”
Hassan previously told ICC investigators that afterward the residents of Timbuktu “were scared out of their minds,” Bensouda said.
Monday’s hearings at the world war crimes court is for judges to determine whether there is enough evidence to take Hassan to a full trial.
A three-judge bench’s decision is not expected for several months.
The hearing at the ICC got off to a slow start after Hassan’s defense accused one judges of bias because she previously led investigations into human rights abuses in Mali.
“This involvement has impacted on the appearance impartiality,” his lawyer, Melinda Taylor, said.
Hassan is the second Islamic extremist to face trial at the ICC for the destruction of the Timbuktu shrines, following a 2016 landmark ruling at the world’s only permanent war crimes court.
In the court’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.
Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed the “Pearl of the Desert” and “The City of 333 Saints” for the number of Muslim sages buried there during a golden age of Islam.
Jihadis who swept into the city considered their shrines to be idolatrous and wrecked them with pickaxes and bulldozers.
The tombs were rebuilt after the jihadis were thrown out of Timbuktu, but the city remains in the grip of insecurity and tourists who once flocked there are few.