Extremist convicted for destroying Timbuktu shrines

A man wearing eyeglasses (© AP Images)
Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi appears at the International Criminal Court in The Hague at the start of his trial. (© AP Images)

On September 22, the International Criminal Court found a Muslim radical guilty of committing a war crime by overseeing the destruction of historic mausoleums in the Malian desert city of Timbuktu, and sentenced him to nine years in prison.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a former teacher, had pleaded guilty and expressed remorse for his role in overseeing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door by pickax-wielding rebels in June and July of 2012.

His trial, which opened August 22, was a landmark for the International Criminal Court, established in The Hague in 2002. It was the tribunal’s first conviction for destruction of religious buildings or historic monuments, and the first guilty verdict delivered against a Muslim extremist.

All of the smashed shrines have since been rebuilt, “with foreign donors paying for the restoration,” the New York Times reported.

Al-Qaida–linked rebels occupied the fabled Saharan city of Timbuktu in 2012 and enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that called for destruction of the historic mud-brick tombs they considered idolatrous. Al Mahdi was leader of one of the “morality brigades” set up by Timbuktu’s new rulers.

A man standing on ruins in the desert (© AP Images)
In 2014, head mason Alassane Ramiya inspected tombs at a Timbuktu mausoleum damaged by radicals. (© AP Images)

International Criminal Court prosecutors said Al Mahdi was a member of Ansar Eddine, an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida that held power in northern Mali in 2012. The militants were driven out after nearly a year by French forces, which arrested Al Mahdi in 2014 in neighboring Niger.

The defendant said nothing after the verdict and sentencing. Earlier in the trial, Al Mahdi urged Muslims around the world not to commit acts similar to those he admitted to.

“They are not going to lead to any good for humanity,” he said.

Al Mahdi had faced a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for destruction of the World Heritage–listed sites. But presiding judge Raul Pangalangan said numerous factors argued for a lesser prison term, including Al Mahdi’s initial reluctance to raze the historic shrines and what the judge called his apparently sincere expression of remorse.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hailed the verdict as a crucial step toward ending impunity for the destruction of world cultural landmarks.

“In the context of repeated violence against people and their heritage, this sentence of the International Criminal Court is a key element in the broader response to violent extremism,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

Al Mahdi’s conviction “is a first important step toward the fight against impunity in Mali,” said Drissa Traore, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights.