The dynamic duo does it again
In chapter seven of Thierry Cruvellier’s book ‘Court of Remorse’ about the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), he described the two defence lawyers, Belgian Jean-Louis Gilissen and Tunisian Mohamed Aouini as inseparable. “You never saw one without the other. They were always chatting. They had the same walk, the same honest handshake with their bodies learning forward slightly to convey sincerity, matching smiles and identical moustaches.”
Fast-forward fifteen years, and the same two were again tag teaming, this time at the ICC. They were representing their client Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi during the shortest trial the court has ever seen in its own short history. From Mahdi’s arrest warrant in September 2015 when he was already in the custody of the authorities of Niger , to a judgement and sentencing, has been little more than a year. That’s because Al Mahdi pled guilty and his lawyers Gilissen and Aouini negotiated a deal with the prosecution that allowed judges to give him a sentence of nine years for the single war crime of cultural destruction, safe in the knowledge that the prosecution would not appeal.
The lawyers had managed a similar case before at the ICTR and the parallels are instructive. Their client there was Georges Ruggiu, a Belgian/Italian journalist working with the notorious Radio Television des Milles Collines (RTLM) which acted as a mouth piece of the regime and encourager of the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Ruggiu too pled guilty at the ICTR [IJT-35]. Although it took several years of incarceration in Arusha before he decided to do so. He admitted that RTLM “was one of the key instruments used by the extremists to mobilise the people and incite them to massacre Tutsis and political opponents”. And he admitted that he and other staff at RTLM bore “a real and full share of the responsibility” for the genocide.
Al Mahdi pled guilty in The Hague - having wanted to do so from the moment he stepped off the plane from Niger, according to what the court was told and said he had been swept up in an "evil wave" by radical groups al-Qaeda and the Ansareddinne, which briefly seized control of Timbuktu in the north of Mali in 2012 [IJT-195].
"This is the first and last wrongful act I will ever commit," Al Mahdi told the court asking for forgiveness. "I would like to seek the pardon of all the whole people of Timbuktu."
"I regret what I have caused to my family, my community in Timbuktu, what I have caused to my home nation Mali," he added.
Both Al Mahdi and Ruggiu were thinkers: ‘converts’ to a cause. And in both cases, regretted that later. Also in both procedures the lawyers tried their hardest to elicit the understanding of the court. Cruvellier describes this desire to understand - but not necessarily forgive – as an interesting singular phenomenon at the ICTR, which was generally focused on what happened during the intense and short period during which the genocide took place. But he makes it clear that the lead prosecutor at the ICTR did not like Ruggiu nor trust his confession. And during the hearing in 2000 she exclaimed, “He was fully and completely engaged in the politics, with all the necessary information. Don’t try to tell me he was manipulated!” quotes Cruvellier.
This time round at the ICC there was no breaking of the ranks by the prosecution. What was similar though was that Gilissen and Aouini presented the story of an individual, and wanted to enable the chamber to understand how their client had gone astray, how he had committed “an error of judgement”. They told his story, how he had become an expert of Koranic interpretation. And especially how he had been seduced by presents from Ansareddine such as a computer, phone, a colour printer, religious CDs and 40,000 euros (45,000 dollars) to pay his family’s debts.
In the end, the judges gave Ruggiu a sentence of twelve years for his role in the genocide. It was never appealed. And the ICC judges gave Al Mahdi a sentence of nine years for war crimes; within the agreement between defence and prosecutors.
Ruggiu testified in Arusha against his former bosses. And it looks likely that Al Mahdi will be a useful tool for further prosecutions, if any of his superiors within the radical leadership of Timbuktu at the time are ever arrested.
Janet Anderson, with thanks to Thijs Bouwknegt for pointing out the parallel.