Timbuktu extremist on trial for ‘unimaginable crimes’

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Malian Islamist militant Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud sits in the courtroom of the ICC (International Criminal Court) during a hearing at the Hague in the Netherlands, July 8, 2019. (Reuters)
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In this file photograph taken on April 4, 2018, alleged extremist leader Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud (C) enters the courtroom prior to his initial appearance on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. (AFP)
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Updated 14 July 2020

Timbuktu extremist on trial for ‘unimaginable crimes’

THE HAGUE: A Malian jihadist police chief committed “unimaginable crimes” during a reign of terror in the fabled shrine city of Timbuktu, prosecutors told the International Criminal Court at the start of his trial Tuesday.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, 42, personally oversaw corporal punishments including amputations and floggings while the Malian city was under the control of Islamist militants for almost a year from early 2012, prosecutors said.
Al Hassan — who appeared in court in The Hague wearing a traditional turban, and a face mask to protect against coronavirus — is charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape and sexual slavery.
The extremists from the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Eddine groups also destroyed the centuries-old shrines of Timbuktu, a city described as the “pearl of the desert.”
“Today marks the beginning of the long-awaited trial of the unimaginable crimes which have been committed in Mali,” the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court.
“Al Hassan was directly involved in the violence and torture inflicted on the men, the women and the children of Timbuktu. He worked in the heart of a repressive, persecuting system.”
The prosecutor said Al Hassan was a key figure in the Islamic police and court system set up by the militants after they exploited an ethnic Tuareg uprising in 2012 to take over cities in Mali’s volatile north.
“Timbuktu the pearl of the desert, whose population had been living in peace for years, was subject to their diktats,” she said, adding that the militants’ aim was to “strike fear into people, to spread terror.”
Al Hassan arrested people, conducted investigations during which suspects were tortured, referred cases to the Islamic court and “participated personally in the meting out of corporal punishment by the police,” Bensouda said.
She said the court would see a video in which a man’s hand is amputated in a public square before the entire population of Timbuktu “in the most brutal way possible, with a type of long knife.”
Al Hassan “totally sanctions this criminal and brutal mutilation,” Bensouda added.
The Islamists are also accused of forcing women and girls to marry militants.
Al Hassan is the second Islamist extremist to face trial at the ICC for the destruction of the Timbuktu shrines, following a landmark 2016 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.
Built between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has also been dubbed “The City of 333 Saints” who were buried there during the golden age of Islam.
Timbuktu’s tombs were rebuilt after the jihadists were thrown out, but the city remains in the grip of insecurity and tourists who once flocked there are now scarce.


Belarus authorities free detainees amid protesters’ pressure

Updated 15 min 20 sec ago

Belarus authorities free detainees amid protesters’ pressure

  • Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk’s jails
  • The releases came hours after Belarus’ top law enforcement official apologized on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police

MINSK, Belarus: Belarusian authorities have released dozens of people detained amid demonstrations contesting the results of the presidential election, in an attempt to assuage public anger against a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.
Around midnight, scores of detainees were seen walking out of one of Minsk’s jails. In the early morning, volunteers also saw at least 119 detainees being released in the сity of Zhodino just northeast of the Belarusian capital. Ambulances arrived to carry those who apparently were unable to walk on their own.
The releases came hours after Belarus’ top law enforcement official apologized on state television for the indiscriminate use of force by police. “I take responsibility for what they say was violence against those people, who happened to be nearby and failed to back off quickly enough,” Interior Minister Yuri Karayev said late Thursday.
The apologies and the release of detainees follow five days of massive protests, in which crowds of demonstrators swarmed the streets to contest the vote results and demand an end to the 26-year rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. On Thursday, thousands of workers rallied outside industrial plants to denounce the police crackdown and push for a recount of Sunday’s vote.
Nearly 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured in the clampdown on demonstrators protesting the official results that said Lukashenko won 80% of the vote and his top opposition challenger only 10%. Police have broken up protests with stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and severe beatings.
On Thursday, hundreds of women formed long “lines of solidarity” in several areas of the capital, Minsk. Many were dressed in white and carried flowers and portraits of detained loved ones.
The human chains grew throughout the day, filling Minsk’s main central squares and avenues and spreading to numerous other cities as motorists honked in support. In Minsk and several other cities, thousands of factory workers also rallied against the police violence, raising the prospect of strikes in a new challenge to the government. Protesters were shouting “Go away!” to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
Amid growing public dismay, dozens of military and police veterans posted videos in which they dumped their uniforms and insignia in the trash. Several popular anchors at Belarus’ state TV stations have quit.
The demonstrations have spread even though the protest lacks leaders. The top opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, suddenly emerged Tuesday in neighboring Lithuania and called on her supporters to stop protests in a video that her associates said was recorded under pressure from law enforcement officials before she left. The 37-year-old former teacher had joined the race to replace her husband, an opposition blogger, who has been jailed since May.
The massive protests against election results and police brutality have been an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and earned the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator” for his relentless crackdown on dissent. The scope and ferocity of the police clampdown were remarkable even for Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule, triggering widespread anger.
After dismissing protesters as mostly ex-convicts and unemployed, the authoritarian leader kept silent Thursday as the demonstrations spread quickly. Some reports said he was preparing an address to the nation.
A protester died Monday in Minsk when, according to the Interior Ministry, an explosive device he tried to throw at police blew up in his hand. Media reports challenged the ministry’s claim, alleging that he was killed by police. The place where he died quickly turned into a pilgrimage site, with hundreds of people, including European ambassadors, laying flowers there.
The authorities said that a detainee died in the southeastern city of Gomel, but the circumstances of his death weren’t immediately clear.
The brutal suppression of protests drew harsh criticism in the West.
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Friday to discuss a response, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the 27-nation bloc would “increase the pressure” on Belarus.