Malian jihadist sentenced to nine years over destruction of shrines at Timbuktu
An Islamic militant who helped destroy the fabled shrines of Timbuktu has been sentenced to nine years in prison in a landmark case before the international criminal court.
A three-judge bench at the tribunal in The Hague handed down the sentence on Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi – the first from the institution to focus solely on cultural destruction as a war crime.
Observers hope Mahdi’s prosecution will deter others from destroying cultural sites, an act condemned by UN chief Ban Ki-moon as “tearing at the fabric of societies”. Mahdi is also the first Islamic extremist to appear before the tribunal.
The former junior civil servant last month pleaded guilty to the single 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.
A slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair, Mahdi asked for the forgiveness of his people as videos were shown of him and other Islamist extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pickaxes and bulldozers after occupying the city, in Mali, after a lightning campaign.
Last week, one of the most important shrines damaged by extremists during their rule of the city was opened again to the public and worshippers after restoration.
El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, who oversaw the reconstruction with Unesco assistance, 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.
Timbuktu fell initially to Tuareg rebels, part of a coalition of factions backed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Islamic militants quickly took control and enforced a harsh version of sharia law, banning music, forcing women to wear the burqa and preventing girls from attending school.
Timbuktu, a major centre of learning and commerce 500 years ago, has long been known for its shrines – the focus of the broadly tolerant, mystic Sufi branch of Islam which is seen as heretical by those who follow literalist doctrines practised in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia. These were an immediate target for hardliners, as they have been elsewhere in the Muslim world.