Islamist militant jailed for cultural destruction in Mali
Defendant pleaded guilty to Timbuktu attacks in landmark case in The Hague
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who was full of “genuine remorse, regret and deep pain” at the vandalism he caused, the International Criminal Court in The Hague was told. Photograph: Bas Czerwinski/EPA
The only Islamist militant to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been sentenced to nine years in jail for destroying centuries-old religious shines in West Africa – in a landmark first conviction for cultural destruction as a war crime.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi became the first defendant to plead guilty at the ICC when he admitted directing attacks against nine of the mausoleums for which the town of Timbuktu in Mali was famous in the 14th century, as well as destroying the wooden door of the ancient Sidi Yahia mosque.
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, described as 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.
The three judges said the relatively lenient sentence – he faced a maximum of 30 years – took into account al-Mahdi’s “genuine remorse, regret and deep pain” at the vandalism in which he had been involved, and his call to other Muslims not to become caught up in a similar “wave of evil”.
“Such an admission may have a deterrent effect on others tempted to commit similar acts in Mali or elsewhere,” said presiding judge Raul Pangalangan.
Unesco afterwards described the verdict was “a landmark in gaining recognition for the importance of cultural heritage for humanity as a whole – and especially for the local communities who have lovingly preserved it over the years.”
The International Federation for Human Rights said the outcome was “of huge significance given the type of armed conflict that is going on around the world – and the amount of cultural property that is being destroyed as a result.”
One of the most important shrines damaged by Ansar Dine was reopened to the public and worshippers last week after being reconstructed with Unesco’s financial assistance.
El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, who oversaw the work, said the trial had been positive because it showed “that in the same way that we cannot kill another person with impunity, we cannot destroy a world heritage site with impunity either”.
However, ordinary residents of Timbuktu were less impressed and sceptical about al-Mahdi’s apparent remorse.
One trader, Hawa Sisse, said: “I was expecting him to be imprisoned for life but the court decided otherwise. I hope that his return to Timbuktu in nine years’ time will not be perceived by militants as a victory of a sort.”