The Hague (AFP)

A Malian jihadist was arrested Saturday and handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face war crimes charges for the destruction of Timbuktu and sex slavery, the tribunal said.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud was detained by the Malian authorities and has now arrived at the tribunal’s detention centre in The Hague, the court said in a late-night statement.
The 40-year-old is alleged to have been a member of the Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine and the de facto chief of the Islamic police from April 2012 to January 2013.
He faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the destruction of the holy shrines of Timbuktu between 2012-2013 as well as accusations of rape and forced marriage.
Hassan allegedly “participated in the policy of forced marriages which victimised the female inhabitants of Timbuktu and led to repeated rapes and the sexual enslavement of women and girls,” the court said in a statement.
His detention “sends a strong message to all those, wherever they are, who commit crimes which shock the conscience of humanity that my office remains steadfast in the pursuit of its mandate,” chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.
Hassan’s arrest came four days after the court issued an international warrant for his arrest.
Prosecutors allege that he “committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Timbuktu, Mali, between April 2012 and January 2013.”
“The charges against him are representative of the criminality and resulting victimisation of the population during this period,” Bensouda added.
– Fabled shrines –
He will be only the second Islamic extremist to face trial at the ICC after war crimes judges in 2016 jailed another Malian for nine years, when he pleaded guilty to demolishing Timbuktu’s fabled shrines in 2012.
The landmark ruling at the world’s only permanent war crimes court was seen as a warning that destroying mankind’s heritage will not go unpunished.
In its first case to focus on cultural destruction as a war crime, the ICC found Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi guilty of directing attacks on the UNESCO world heritage site during the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012.
Mahdi “supervised the destruction and gave instructions to the attackers” who took pickaxes and bulldozers to the centuries-old shrines, presiding judge Raul Pangalangan told the tribunal.
Hassan, a member of the Turag tribe, however has been further charged with “persecution on both religious and gender grounds; rape and sexual slavery committed in the context of forced marriages; torture and other inhuman acts,” the court said in a statement late Saturday.
The ICC opened in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes in places where national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute alleged perpetrators.
Founded between the fifth and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed “the city of 333 saints” for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was however considered idolatrous by the extremist jihadists who swept across Mali’s remote north in early 2012.
The landmark 2016 verdict by the ICC against Mahdi was the first arising out of the conflict in Mali, and the first time a jihadist had sat in the dock at the court.
Hassan is not expected to appear in court for a few days, given the long Easter weekend, a court spokesman told AFP.
The court alleges he “played a prominent role in the commission of crimes and religious and gender‑based persecution by … armed groups against the civilian population of Timbuktu,” when it was under the control of armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).