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Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Malian national aged around 40, is the first jihadist to face charges at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for the destruction of cultural heritage sites.
Prosecutors allege that as a member of Ansar Dine – a Malian Islamist group with links to al Qaeda – al-Mahdi ordered the destruction of nine historic mausoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu in 2012, when militant groups seized control of northern Mali.
At the hearing Monday, al-Mahdi pleaded guilty to charges of deliberately attacking religious or historical monuments.
“Your honour, regrettably I have to say that what I heard so far is accurate and reflects the events. I plead guilty,” al-Mahdi told the ICC after the solo charge of cultural destruction was read to him.
The trial marks a legal milestone, which archaeologists hope will send a warning that the plundering and pillaging of the planet’s ancient artefacts and sites will not go unpunished.
The groundbreaking trial comes at a time of growing international alarm over the destruction of cultural heritage sites by jihadist groups across many parts of the world.
Forgiveness from ‘ancestors of the mausoleums’
Wearing a dark suit and striped tie, al-Mahdi stood up in court while the charges were read Monday. He expressed regret over his “wrongful” acts and begged forgiveness from the people of Timbuktu.
“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way,” he said, adding that he was also seeking forgiveness from “the ancestors of the mausoleums I have destroyed”.
At the start of the trial, prosecutors revealed that they had made a deal with the defence team to ask for a jail term of nine to 11 years. In return, al-Mahdi said he would not appeal.
The judges recognised this, but also warned al-Mahdi that they were not necessarily bound by the deal and he faced a maximum term of 20 years.
During his hearing, the defendant sought to distance himself from jihadists by describing their acts as “evil”.
He said he wanted to “give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world – not to get involved in the same acts I got involved in because they are not going to lead to any good for humanity”.
From trainee teacher to Hisbah head
As the head of the department for upholding public virtue and preventing vice for Ansar Dine al-Mahdi ordered the attacks on the Timbuktu’s shrines, according to ICC prosecutors.
The shrines included 14 of Timbuktu’s 16 ancient mausoleums that are considered totems of idolatry by jihadists.
Born in Agoune, a village about 100 kilometers west of Timbuktu, al-Mahdi is an ethnic Tuareg who trained as a teacher. Acquaintances have described him as a quiet man who practiced an austere form of Islam alien to the West African nation. One of al-Mahdi’s former teachers told the French weekly Jeune Afrique that al-Mahdi refused to shake her hand since it was considered “un-Islamic”.
When rebel groups seized control of northern Mali in 2012, al-Mahdi joined Ansar Dine, a militant group founded by Iyad Ag Ghali, a controversial Tuareg rebel leader who once served as a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia, where he came under the sway of the strict, official Saudi form of Wahhabi Islam.
Prosecutors say that as the head of Ansar Dine’s Hisbah, the department for upholding public virtue and preventing vice, al-Mahdi grew frustrated when local people refused to stop worshipping at the city’s ancient shrines and ordered attacks with pickaxes, chisels and pick-up trucks.
Saving Timbuktu’s ancient texts
An ancient hub on the old Saharan trading routes, Timbuktu was a center of Islamic scholarship under several West African empires, where a syncretic practice of Islam saw the flourishing of numerous shrines and Islamic schools that housed ancient manuscripts from across the Muslim world.
When northern Mali fell to a motley mix of jihadist and Tuareg militant groups following a military coup in March 2012, archaeologists sounded warnings of the fate of the city’s cultural heritage.
Many of the ancient texts however survived until France launched a military operation to liberate northern Mali in January 2013. Credit for the preservation of numerous texts have gone to local librarians and collectors who managed to smuggle out several ancient manuscripts, as recorded in Joshua Hammer’s book, “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts”.
A milestone for justice?
While the trial has been hailed as a milestone in international justice, it has faced criticism from a number of Malians and a few human rights groups.
Some rights groups have voiced dismay that the trial was not extended to include other human rights violations.
The Paris-based rights group International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has filed a criminal complaint in the name of 33 victims from Timbuktu in the Malian courts against al-Mahdi and 14 others, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender-based crimes such as rape and sexual slavery.
“We appreciate the significance of prosecuting the destruction of cultural property but deeply regret that the charges against al-Mahdi were not widened to include crimes against the civilian population,” said the FIDH in a statement.
Conservationists however have widely welcomed the trial. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said recently the case was close to her heart and that she “would never forget” the scenes of ransacked and damaged shrines she saw on a visit to Timbuktu in January 2013 shortly after the launch of the French-led military operation.