Another African has appeared in the dock at the International Criminal Court, charged with destroying ancient monuments in Mali. Some African leaders say the court unfairly targets the continent.
In 2012, the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine destroyed historic earthen buildings and religious shrines in Timbuktu, northern Mali, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague describe the destruction as a war crime.
Ansar Dine leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi stands trial from Monday (22.08.2016). He pleaded guilty to the charge. It is an unusual trial for the ICC, whose cases have in the past been confined to proceedings in which the crime victims were human.
"The trial is unprecedented in many respects. It is the first to deal with events in Mali. It is also the first time that a defendant has announced his intention to plead guilty. This is also the first time in which the destruction of ancient monuments has been classified as a war crime," ICC court spokeswoman Oriane Maillet told DW.
Prosecutors are expecting a short trial and a verdict after one week, assuming the defendant doesn't retract his confession. To prevent any misunderstandings - or additional legal complications - the judges intend to spell out to the defendant one more time the consequences of a guilty plea. The prosecutors have not called for any specific sentence, but al-Mahdi can expect to be sent to prison for several years.
A court only for Africa
Trials at the ICC do not always run so smoothly. This year and last, two trials of Kenyan politicians had to be abandoned because of a lack of evidence.
So far, ICC judges, who are selected by the court's member countries, have only completed 14 trials, of which only two ended with final verdicts and prison sentences. Thirty-one sets of proceedings are still ongoing.
All defendants were Africans who came from the continent's various trouble spots, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Libya. In an interview with DW earlier this year, Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo voiced an oft-heard complaint that the ICC had been created just for Africans.
"It is mainly used by Europe to manipulate African political affairs," she said. "Which white man has ever been sentenced by this court? Are you really telling me that no crimes are committed in parts of the world where people are light-skinned?" (Rwanda is not a member of the ICC.)
Responsible only for member countries
Currently, 124 countries are members of the ICC, a quarter of which are African. The ICC can only try countries, or citizens of countries, that have ratified the court's Rome Statute. Many important and influential countries, including the US, Russia and China, are not members and do not accept the court's jurisdiction. Others embroiled in conflicts, such as Israel, Iraq or Syria, have also not signed, or ratified, the document.
"The court is concerned with crimes that are committed all over the world," ICC spokeswoman Oriane Millet said. "To say that the court is focused solely on Africa is to look at its activities from the wrong perspective.
"We have until now concentrated on crimes committed against African victims. That is the difference. Inquiries are now underway relating to Georgia. Preliminary investigations are also in progress in other parts of the world as well," Millet said.
The ICC's chief prosecutor, Gambian national Fatou Bensouda, has launched investigations in Iraq, Venezuela and Afghanistan, but so far they have not led to criminal proceedings.
Elise Keppler, an international justice specialist at Human Rights Watch, says there are many reasons why the ICC is chiefly preoccupied with Africa. It is not a matter of racism, but rather the fact that many of the world's conflicts involving crimes against humanity happen to take place in Africa, she said. Africa's legal systems are also very weak.
"The ICC may have its problems," Keppler said, "but in the absence of functioning national courts, the ICC offers the only opportunity to bring to book those in the upper reaches of government who are responsible for wrong-doing."
Ghanaian President John Mahama last year told DW that sitting heads of state and government should not be prosecuted at the ICC. But this sort of immunity is not foreseen under the court's statutes.
"The ICC is relevant, but we must take African views into account," he said. "Africa believes, rightly or wrongly, it is under attack. Only African leaders are in the dock at the ICC."
John Mahama has been unable to find much support for this position among leaders of fellow African Union countries. At the last AU summit in July 2016, there was no motion calling on African states to join a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Kenya said it wanted to leave, but Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and some other nations wish to stay.
In defending itself from African criticism, the ICC says almost of all the cases it has taken on so far have been passed on to it either by African nations themselves, or by the UN Security Council.
"We only launch investigations when the judiciary of a particular state cannot undertake the task itself in an appropriate manner. That is why we see ourselves as the last resort," Maillet said.
In the case of the destruction wrought in Timbuktu, it was Mali itself that called for proceedings against al-Mahdi.