Defence says Malian rebel in ICC trial was 'small fry'

FILE PHOTO: The black flag of the Ansar Dine Islamic group is posted on a road sign in Kidal in northeastern Mali

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Malian Islamist rebel accused of war crimes told his trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday that their client was a just a small fish within the rebel group that took over Timbuktu.

Defence lawyer Melinda Taylor did not deny that Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz was a member of the Ansar Dine Islamist group which controlled every aspect of daily life in Timbuktu after its 2012 takeover.

However, she painted him as someone trying to maintain order in a chaotic situation after the rebel takeover and who did not contribute in a meaningful way to any of the charged crimes.

Prosecutors told judges on Tuesday that Al Hassan headed an Islamic police force that terrorized the population of Timbuktu, especially women, who were subjected to rape, forced marriages and sexual slavery.

Al Hassan has pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Earlier prosecutors and lawyers for the over 2,000 victims who are parties in the case described Al Hassan as "indispensable" to the Ansar Dine and victims' lawyers said he was a "cold-blooded monster" who took part in a "tyrannical regime".

After Ansar Dine took over Timbuktu it tried to impose sharia Islamic law.

The al Qaeda-linked fighters also used pick-axes, shovels and hammers to shatter earthen tombs and centuries-old shrines reflecting Timbuktu's Sufi version of Islam in what is known as the "City of 333 Saints".

The ICC, the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, has been examining events in Mali since 2012. French and Malian troops pushed the rebels back the following year.

The court is expected to hand down a verdict in Al Hassan's case before the end of the year.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)