Malian jailed for war crime of cultural destruction

Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sa
Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mahdi said he was overtaken by evil spirits when he gave the orders to ransack the ancient sites.
Mahdi said he was overtaken by evil spirits when he gave the orders to ransack the ancient sites.

THE HAGUE • War crime judges yesterday found a Malian guilty of destroying Timbuktu's fabled shrines during Mali's 2012 conflict and jailed him for nine years.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is the first militant to face the International Criminal Court in The Hague in a trial that focused on cultural destruction as a war crime.

The verdict from the three-judge bench is a landmark judgment that experts hope will send a strong message to safeguard the world's ancient monuments.

"The chamber unanimously finds that Mr al-Mahdi is guilty of the crime of attacking protected sites," judge Raul Pangalangan said, adding that the chamber "unanimously sentences you to nine years of imprisonment" for the "war crime".

Prosecutors had asked for a jail term of between nine and 11 years.

UN chief Ban Ki Moon recently condemned those bent on razing the world's cultural heritage as "tearing at the fabric of societies".

In an unprecedented move, Mahdi, around 40, last month pleaded guilty to the single war crime charge of "intentionally directing" attacks in 2012 on nine of Timbuktu's mausoleums and the centuries-old door of the city's Sidi Yahia mosque.

The slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair asked his fellow Malians to pardon him as videos were shown of him and other Islamist extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pick- axes and bulldozers.

As the head of the so-called Hisbah or "Manners Brigade", it was Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, who gave the orders to ransack the sites. Apologising for his actions in court, he said he had been overtaken by "evil spirits".

Mr El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, who oversaw the reconstruction with Unesco aid, said Mahdi's trial was an important lesson.

The trial "has to be useful for something, showing to everyone that in the same way that we cannot kill another person with impunity, we cannot just destroy a world heritage site with impunity either", he said.

Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.

Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was, however, considered idolatrous by the militants who swept across Mali's remote north in early 2012.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Malian jailed for war crime of cultural destruction'. Print Edition | Subscribe