THE HAGUE (Reuters) - An Islamist militant suspected of war crimes in Mali appeared before the International Criminal Court on Wednesday but did not address the allegations against him, instead complaining about the conditions of his detention.
The ICC issued an arrest warrant against Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud for crimes allegedly committed while serving as de facto chief of religious police after his jihadist group seized control of the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012.
He is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity over the destruction of cultural monuments in the ancient city in Mali’s north, and over enforcement of policies that led to sexual enslavement of women and girls.
When asked during his first appearance at the ICC if he had any observations to make to the court, Al Hassan, who is not yet required to enter a plea, complained about his detention.
“I was detained in a single room with a camera,” he told the judge after confirming his identity. Al Hassan’s duty counsel told the court his client believed the circumstances of his detention were “harming his dignity and his privacy”.
Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Dine, one of several Islamist militant groups that have waged an insurgency against the Malian government since 2012.
Timbuktu is known for monuments dating to its 14th century golden age and was once a major trading hub and centre of Sufi Islam - a branch of the religion seen as idolatrous by some Muslim militant groups.
After seizing Timbuktu, Ansar Dine introduced its version of sharia law that Al Hassan is accused of helping to enforce, including forced marriages for some women and girls and the destruction of Sufi monuments.
Under ICC rules, Al Hassan has not yet formally been charged. The next step in his case is a confirmation of charges hearing that has been tentatively set for Sept. 24.
He was handed over to ICC custody in The Hague on March 31, almost a year after his arrest in northern Mali.
Mali fell into turmoil when Islamist fighters and Tuareg-led rebels seized control of the country’s north six years ago.
France poured hundreds of troops into its former West African colony to repel the insurgents in 2013, but attacks have been spreading further south towards the capital Bamako despite a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Heinrich