Jihadist on trial over Timbuktu shrines

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi

THE HAGUE. — An Islamic militant yesterday was accused of destroying centuries-old mausoleums in Timbuktu during the 2012 Mali conflict as the International Criminal Court (ICC) heard its first-ever case concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts.

International prosecutors at The Hague-based ICC said Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a former trainee teacher, led and personally took part in attacks on the ancient shrines with pick-axes and crowbars after jihadists overran northern Mali four years ago.

“This crime affects the soul and spirit of the people,” said prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, comparing the attacks on the ancient seat of learning to the destruction wrought by Islamic State group militants on the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.

“These were sites dedicated to religion and historic monuments and did not constitute military objectives,” she said, adding their destruction hit “the deepest and most intimate part of a human being, their faith.” At the hearing, prosecutors must convince judges, led by Kenya’s Joyce Aluoch, that they have sufficient evidence to justify a full trial.

The ICC has been examining events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized part of the north, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. French and Malian troops pushed them back the following year. Known as the “City of 333 Saints”, Timbuktu was a trading hub and spiritual centre by the 14th century, playing a key role in the spread of Islam across the continent. The mausoleums of those scholars remain important pilgrimage sites. Al-Mahdi — an ethnic Tuareg who prosecutors say belonged to the Ansar Dine militant group that has ties to al Qaeda — listened intently as prosecutor Bensouda accused him and accomplices of showing “their contempt” for Timbuktu’s cultural treasures. — France 24.

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