THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Lawyers for a Malian Islamist rebel accused of being central to the persecution of residents in Timbuktu and the destruction of the city’s holy sites told judges at his war crimes trial he was wrongly targeted.
“He should not be convicted because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong ethnicity,” defence lawyer Melinda Taylor said of her client Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz.
According to prosecutors Al Hassan was a key member of the Ansar Dine Islamist group which controlled every aspect of daily life after their takeover of Timbuktu in 2012. Al Hassan headed an Islamic police force that terrorized the population of Timbuktu, the prosecutors say.
He is charged with war crimes including torture and sexual slavery.
As well as trying to impose sharia Islamic law across a divided Mali, the al Qaeda-linked fighters used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter earthen tombs and centuries-old shrines reflecting the local Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the “City of 333 Saints”.
Defence lawyers in their opening statement did not deny Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Dine. However, they painted him as a man simply trying to maintain order in a chaotic situation in Timbuktu after it was taken by the rebels.
In addition the defence says Al Hassan has mental problems after being allegedly tortured while in detention in Mali before being sent to the ICC.
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
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)