The Hague, Jun 26: The International Criminal Court has convicted an al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist leader of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali's Timbuktu.

Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud was accused of playing a key role in a reign of terror unleashed by insurgents on the historic desert city in northern Mali in 2012.

He was accused of involvement in crimes including rape, torture, persecution, enforced marriages and sexual slavery. Prosecutors say he 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.

Al Hassan faces up to life imprisonment when a sentence is handed down at a later date.

Prosecutors say he 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.

Women and girls suffered in particular under Ansar Dine's repressive regime, facing corporal punishment and imprisonment, the court's then-chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said at the start of Al Hassan's trial nearly four years ago.

"Many were forced into marriage,” Bensouda said. “Confined against their will and repeatedly raped by members of the armed group.” Al Hassan was involved in organizing such marriages, the prosecutor told judges.

She cited one rape victim as saying, “All that was left of me was a corpse.”

Defence lawyer Melinda Taylor told judges that Al Hassan was a member of the Islamic police force who was “obliged to respect and execute the decisions of the Islamic tribunal. This is what the police around the world do.”

In Timbuktu, victims of Ansar Dine crimes were awaiting the verdicts and possible compensation.

"We are waiting and hoping for a judgment that will give us justice," said Yehia Hamma Cissé, president of a group of victims' associations in the Timbuktu region.

“Members of our associations have been raped, had their hands cut off, been whipped, and we would like to be compensated," he said.

The court made a reparation order following the 2016 conviction of an Ansar Dine member, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi. He was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for attacking nine mausoleums and a mosque door in Timbuktu in 2012.

A French-led military operation in 2013 forced Al Hassan and others from power.

Mali, along with its neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger, has for over a decade battled an insurgency fought by armed groups, including some allied with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. Following military coups in all three nations in recent years, the ruling juntas have expelled French forces and turned to Russia's mercenary units for security assistance instead.

Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge in Mali after a second coup in 2021, promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024. But in September, the junta canceled elections scheduled for February 2024 indefinitely, citing the need for further technical preparations.

The verdicts in Al Hassan's case were delayed by some six months due to the illness of one of the judges in his trial. (AP)