In a historic first before the International Criminal Court (ICC) last week, Malian Islamist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison for the destruction of religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu. The landmark trial saw the first international prosecution for the destruction of protected cultural heritage. The verdict has been welcomed in Mali and throughout the international community. But justice must not stop here says civil society.
A first for the ICC
On 27 September, the judges of ICC Trial Chamber VIII unanimously found Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi guilty of being a co-perpetrator of the war crime consisting in intentionally directing attacks against religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu, Mali, in June and July 2012.
The decision was made following al-Mahdi’s admission of guilt in August 2016 that he helped organised and participate in the destruction and damage of 10 historic and religious monuments in Timbuktu. Al-Mahdi also admitted to being a member of Ansar Dine, a group closely aligned to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In their rendering their decision, ICC judges outlined how, from April 2012 until January 2013, Ansar Dine and AQIM took control of Timbuktu and imposed strict religious and political governance.
Al-Mahdi joined Ansar Dine as a religious expert and was given command of the Hisba, which enforced strict religious morals on the population.
The religious and cultural imposition of Al-Mahdi’s Hisba contradicted many of the local customs and beliefs of Timbuktu’s population.
Timbuktu was home to thousands of precious manuscripts, mausoleums of local saints and historic structures that were widely used and revered by the local population.
Al-Mahdi and the militants saw the historic structures, shrines and manuscripts of Timbuktu as idolatrous and proceeded to destroy 10 historic and religious monuments between June and July 2012.
A deterrent effect
Following al-Mahdi’s admission of guilt and sentence to 9 years in prison, the presiding judge, Raul Cano Pangalangan said that the sentence of al-Mahdi would have “a deterrent effect on others tempted to carry out similar acts in Mali or elsewhere.”
The prosecution of al-Mahdi is the first time the ICC has prosecuted someone for the destruction of cultural sites. Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova wrote in The Guardian that:
“The deliberate destruction of heritage has become a weapon of war, part of a broader strategy of cultural cleansing that includes murder and persecution of people in the short term, and the annihilation of identities and destruction of social fabric in the longer term.”
Civil Society reacts
“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,” said El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, head of the Cultural Mission of Timbuktu.
“This verdict is a victory for the victims of crimes committed in Mali since 2012, especially for the people of Timbuktu. It sends a strong signal to the perpetrators of war crimes involving the destruction of the cultural heritage, war crimes that seek to destroy the soul of the people, as the judges have acknowledged. This victory does leave something to be desired, however, as we would have liked the charges against Al Mahdi to have been expanded to include crimes committed against people,” said Drissa Traoré, lawyer and vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
“Going beyond the case itself, we recognise the symbolic importance of this verdict: this is the first time that the perpetrator of crimes committed in Mali since 2012 is found guilty and is convicted. This decision thus marks the first important step in the fight against impunity in Mali, where legal proceedings struggle to advance. It is urgent for the Malian authorities to make greater efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against civilians, and particularly crimes of sexual violence,” said Bakary Camara, secretary general of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).
“This verdict is a clear recognition that attacks on religious and historical monuments can destroy the culture and identity of a population and constitute crimes under international law. This positive development should not let us lose sight of the fact that hundreds of civilians were murdered, tortured and raped during the 2012 conflict in Mali. The ICC should therefore continue to investigate crimes committed by all sides to the conflict,” said Erica Bussey, senior legal advisor at Amnesty International.
“The decision of the International Criminal Court is a landmark in gaining recognition for the importance of heritage for humanity as a whole and for the communities that have preserved it over the centuries. It also supports UNESCO’s conviction that heritage has a major role to play in reconstruction and peace building,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO.