THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- A defense lawyer for an alleged jihadist leader from Mali accused International Criminal Court prosecutors Monday of ignoring claims that her client was tortured in custody and called into question a judge's impartiality.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, alleged that the suspect was responsible for torture and mistreatment of the population of the desert city of Timbuktu from April 2012 until January 2013 while it was occupied and ruled by Islamic extremists.
The claims came as the court opened a preliminary hearing to consider whether evidence is strong enough to put Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud on trial for alleged crimes in Timbuktu including torture, rape and persecution.
Defense lawyer Melinda Taylor argued that the prosecution evidence relies heavily on statements Al Hassan made while he was held at an undisclosed location in Mali that she said was notorious for human rights abuses. She said that Al Hassan later told ICC prosecutors he was tortured.
"It would appear that in this case they turned a blind eye to allegations of torture simply because the victim was a suspect," Taylor told judges.
She also asked for the case to be adjourned to consider whether one of the three judges involved at the hearing could be biased. Taylor said that Judge Reine Alapini-Gansou from Benin took part in fact finding missions to Mali for the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights before joining the International Criminal Court.
Presiding Judge Peter Kovacs did not immediately rule on the request.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda urged judges to confirm all the charges against Al Hassan and order him to stand trial. Bensouda told judges that her evidence would show that Al Hassan was a key member of Ansar Dine, an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida that held power in northern Mali at the time.
Bensouda said that Ansar Dine imposed a brutal regime on Timbuktu residents including public floggings, amputations and forced marriages.
She said Al Hassan was the de facto chief of the Islamic police and "played an essential and undeniable role in the system of persecution established by the armed groups throughout the period of occupation of Timbuktu."
The case against Al Hassan is the second at the global court to focus on the occupation of Timbuktu.
A member of Ansar Dine, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for intentionally directing attacks against nine mausoleums and a mosque door in Timbuktu in 2012. At previous hearings, Al Mahdi pleaded guilty and expressed remorse for his role in leading the destruction.
A French-led military operation in 2013 forced Al Hassan and others from power, though elements have continued to stage numerous attacks on Malian and international forces.