The trial of a Malian jihadist accused of demolishing Timbuktu's fabled shrines and unleashing a reign of terror begins at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, 42, has been charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape and sexual slavery.
The charges cover a period when Islamic fundamentalists exploited an ethnic Tuareg uprising in 2012 to take over cities in Mali's volatile north.
Prosecutors at the tribunal in The Hague will give their opening statement against the man they described in pre-trial hearings as having "terrorised" local residents.
The defence and the legal representatives of alleged victims will deliver their statements at a later date when evidence is presented to the court.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic some participants in the trial will take part remotely, and it was unclear whether Al Hassan would personally be in court.
Jihadists who swept into Timbuktu, dubbed the "Pearl of the Desert", considered the shrines there to be idolatrous and wrecked them with pickaxes and bulldozers.
Built between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has also been dubbed "The City of 333 Saints" who were buried there during the golden age of Islam.
'Essential, undeniable role'
ICC prosecutors said there were "substantial grounds" to convict Al Hassan for "crimes against humanity… torture, rape, sexual slavery (and) other inhumane acts including, inter alia, forced marriages, persecution and war crimes."
"Al Hassan played an essential and undeniable role in the system of persecution established by the armed groups… in Timbuktu," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said last year.
The jihadist police imposed draconian measures on the city's residents who lived in constant fear of "despicable" violence and repression, prosecutors said.
They cited an example in which a man had his hand amputated after he was accused of petty theft.
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Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband
In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.
Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.
Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.
Did he repent his crime, she asked?
The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.
Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”
The soldier had no answer to that.
This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.
And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.
Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.
She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.
Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”
“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”
‘It killed him’
Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.
“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.
He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.
“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.
Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.
There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.
All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.
We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.
Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.
Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.
“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.
“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”
Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.
Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.
Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.
That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.
Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told
The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.
Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.
The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.
Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.
A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.
In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.
“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.
Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.
The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.
Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”
In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.
There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.
Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.
Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.
“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.
“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they
ensure they can support the people they host.”
Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”
Why has Russia invaded Ukraine? The conflict explained
As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky leads by example from the streets of Kyiv, tirelessly rallying the international community for support, his people mount an impressive resistence, holding back Russia’s armed forces as best they can.
The aggressor meanwhile continues to employ brutal siege warfare tactics, surrounding the country’s cities and subjecting them to intense shelling campaigns, a strategy previously seen in Chechnya and Syria.
The likes of Kharkiv and Mariupol have been battered by Russian missiles in pursuit of gradual territorial gains in the east and south of Ukraine while the targeting of residential buildings, hospitals and nurseries have led to outraged accusations of civilians being intentionally targeted and of war crimes being commited.
Mr Zelensky’s appeals for Nato to implement a no-fly zone remain unanswered as the West fears such an act would be interpreted as a provocation by Russia and draw the alliance into a much larger war over Eastern Europe.
However, US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres have joined other global powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack and promised to hold it “accountable”, with the West introducing several rounds of tough economic sanctions against Russian banks, businesses and oligarchs.
They have also faced criticism for not doing enough to support the more than 4m refugees from the conflict, who have fled their homeland for neighbouring states like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
Rumbling tensions in in the region, which began in December when Russian troops amassed at its border with Ukraine, really escalated in the final week of February when Mr Putin moved to officially recognise the pro-Russian breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states.
This enabled him to move military resources into those areas, in anticipation of the coming assault, under the guise of extending protection to allies.
That development meant months of frantic diplomatic negotiations pursued by the likes of US secretary of state Antony Blinken, French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss in the hope of averting calamity had ultimately come to nothing.
But what are the key issues behind the conflict, where did it all begin and how might the crisis unfold?
How did the crisis start?
Going back eight years gives the current situation more context.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power by mass protests.
Weeks later, Russia threw its weight behind two separatist insurgency movements in Ukraine’s east, which eventually saw the pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk declare the DPR and LPR independent states, although they went entirely unacknowledged by the international community.
More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting that has been ongoing throughout the intervening years, which has devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland: the Donbas.
Both Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to back the rebels but Moscow has denied the allegations, stating that Russians who joined the separatists did so voluntarily.
A 2015 peace accord – the Minsk II agreement – was brokered by France and Germany to help end the large-scale battles. The 13-point agreement obliged Ukraine to offer autonomy to separatist regions and amnesty for the rebels while Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories.
The agreement is highly complex, however, because Moscow continues to insist it has not been a party in the conflict and is therefore not bound by its terms.
In point 10 of the agreement, there is a call for the withdrawal of all foreign armed formations and military equipment from the disputed DPR and LPR. Ukraine says this refers to forces from Russia but Moscow has previously denied it has any of its own troops in those states.
Last year, a spike in ceasefire violations in the east and a Russian troop concentration near Ukraine fuelled fears that a new war was about to erupt but tensions abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after manoeuvres in April.
How is the situation at present?
In early December 2021, US intelligence officials determined that Russia was planning to deploy as many as 175,000 troops near Ukraine’s border in preparation for a possible invasion that they believed could begin in early 2022.
Kyiv likewise complained that Moscow had placed over 90,000 troops near the two countries’ border, warning that “large scale escalation” was possible in January.
Additionally, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces said Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in Ukraine’s rebel-controlled east and that Russian officers hold all commanding positions within the separatist forces.
Moscow had earlier repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine, not providing any details about its military numbers and locations, saying that their deployment on its own territory should not concern anyone.
Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukraine of breaching Minsk II and has criticised the West for failing to encourage Ukrainian compliance with its conditions.
Amid the acrimony, Mr Putin has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it is useless in light of Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 pact.
Moscow has also strongly criticised the US and its Nato allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying that this encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force.
Mr Putin is known to deeply resent what he considers to be Nato’s gradual shift east since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and is determined to block Ukraine being granted access to its ranks.
What might happen next?
With Mr Putin’s announcement of his “special military operation”, the worst case scenario has now been realised.
The Kremlin had previously routinely denied that it had any plans to invade, claims that few believed – with good reason.
Even after the Russian president’s latest announcement, a Russian envoy to the UN denied that Moscow had any grievance with the Ukrainian people, whom he insisted would not be targeted, merely those in power.
That has proved to be entirely false.
Western leaders, united in condemnation, have rendered Russia a pariah state on the world stage, their sanctions promising to tank the Russian economy, which may ultimately place renewed pressure on Mr Putin at home, despite his best efforts to silence critical media and nascent protest movements.
Mr Biden has meanwhile moved to assure the international community that Russia will be held accountable for its actions.
“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way,” he has said.
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