Malian suspect at ICC: New opportunity for accountability for sexual crimes

After Jean-Pierre Bemba’s conviction was overturned, the new Malian case at the ICC offers an opportunity to successfully convict a suspect for sexual crimes. Focusing on a gender analysis of crimes will be essential, as gender was at the center of armed groups’ strategy.

Few women in northern Mali believed that this day would come.  One of the chiefs of the Islamic police of Timbuktu during the jihadist groups take over of the north of the country in 2012-2013 appeared before the ICC last April. The prosecution alleges that Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud is responsible for rape and sexual slavery, torture, persecution, outrages upon personal dignity, passing of unlawful sentences, and attacking religious and historical buildings.

If the charges of rape and sexual slavery are upheld after the confirmation of charges hearing planned in the fall, it will be a not-to-be-missed opportunity to secure a conviction for sexual crimes as well as to focus on the gender dimension of some international crimes. Gender was indeed at the center of the Islamist militants’ strategy to secure their grip on Timbuktu and to subjugate its inhabitants. Meanwhile, it is the first time that a suspect is appearing before the Court on the charges of persecution on gender grounds.

In the sixteen years it has been operating, the ICC has deplorably failed to convict a single accused for sexual violence. In a recent setback earlier this month, the Court acquitted the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including rape.  In two other previous instances, accused were also acquitted.

Yet, in 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor committed to better integrate a gender perspective in all its work and to improve prosecution of sexual violence.  The Al Hassane case and the context in which crimes were committed in Timbuktu offer an opportunity to demonstrate this commitment.

Al Hassan was a member of Ansar Eddine, an Islamist group seeking to impose Islamic law across the country. Alongside Tuareg rebels and other jihadist groups including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they launched an offensive on northern Mali and took control of Timbutku between April 2012 and January 2013.

During this period, Islamist armed groups imposed a strict application of Sharia law. Men and women were not allowed to talk to each other outside of their families, music was forbidden, and shopkeepers were arrested and tortured for possessing tobacco. Jihadists imposed cruel punishments including public flogging and amputation. While these practices and destruction of mausoleums have caught the world’s attention, sexual crimes have been kept secret because of the stigma and the cultural taboo attached to them.

Women of Timbuktu were sexually harassed, forcibly married and raped. Women who were not fully covered were commonly harassed and beaten on the street by members of the Islamic Police or the so-called morality police, the Hisbah. They chased and arrested people considered not in compliance with Sharia law. During their detention at the police station, women were routinely tortured, sexually abused and in some cases raped.  Armed men controlling the city also kidnapped women after allegedly “marrying” them, detained them in their homes or abandoned houses to rape them repeatedly, and sometimes gang raped them.

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