Islamist militant pleads guilty to destroying Timbuktu shrines

Landmark case marks first time cultural destruction has been prosecuted as war crime

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi – also known as Abu Tourab –  at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday.  He expressed his deep regret to the people of Timbuktu and Mali. Photograph: Patrick Post/EPA

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi – also known as Abu Tourab – at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday. He expressed his deep regret to the people of Timbuktu and Mali. Photograph: Patrick Post/EPA

 

The first Islamist militant to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) has pleaded guilty to the destruction of sites of historic and religious importance – in a landmark case significant because it is the first time cultural destruction has been prosecuted as a war crime.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi – also known as Abu Tourab – is charged with destroying medieval shrines, tombs of Sufi saints, and a mosque dating back to the 15th century, all of which formed part of a Unesco world heritage site in Timbuktu in northern Mali.

The mausoleums were desecrated, and some 4,000 ancient manuscripts looted or burned, in June and July 2012, as part of an al-Qaeda-inspired rebellion by Tuareg militias armed with weapons believed to have come from post-Gadafy Libya.

Al-Mahdi, formerly a religious scholar and trainee preacher, was a local leader of the militant group, Ansar Dine, an ally of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which planned to impose Sharia law in Mali until it was driven out by the French in 2013.

Believing religious or historical artefacts to be idolatrous, Al-Mahdi led religious police to the holy sites and watched while they smashed them with pick-axes and crowbars, occasionally taking part himself.

After his arrest last September, ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, compared the Timbuktu attack to the destruction of monuments in the Syrian city of Palmyra last year by Islamic State and the Taliban’s obliteration of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001.

“These sites were dedicated to religion,” she said. “They were historic monuments that did not constitute military targets. Their destruction hit at the deepest part of human beings – their faith.”

‘Wave of evil’

As the hearing got under way, Al-Mahdi (45) claimed the distinction of being the first defendant to plead guilty before the ICC in its 14-year history – saying he had been caught up in a “wave of evil” generated by al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine.

He expressed his deep regret to the people of Timbuktu and Mali.

“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look on me as a son who has lost his way. Those who forgive me will be rewarded by the almighty. This was the first and last wrongful act I will ever commit.”

Wearing a dark suit and wearing glasses, he told the judges he had drawn on Islamic teachings in his decision to plead guilty.

“We need to speak justice even to ourselves. We have to be truthful, even if it burns our own hands.

“All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry. I regret all the damage my actions have caused.

“I would like to give advice to all Muslims not to get involved in the same acts I became involved in. They will not lead to any good for humanity.”

Al-Mahdi faces a maximum sentence of 30 years but is likely to receive a lesser term given his co-operation, which means the case is likely to be over this week.