Judges at the International Criminal Court ordered a radical Islamist on Tuesday to serve nine years in prison for his role in demolishing historic Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, in the court’s first prosecution of the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.
The judges said that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of a jihadist group linked to Al Qaeda, had committed a war crime in the summer of 2012 when he organized the smashing of the revered shrines, which were built centuries ago above the tombs of venerated Muslim holy men and scholars.
Mr. Mahdi, who was born in Mali around 1975, stood and listened to a translation in Arabic as the presiding judge, Raul Cano Pangalangan, read out the sentence in English. The session was broadcast from the court, in The Hague.
Although the crime of destroying cultural heritage is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, Mr. Mahdi’s sentence was at the low end of the prosecutors’ recommendation: nine to 11 years. Judge Pangalangan noted five mitigating circumstances: Mr. Mahdi had admitted his guilt, cooperated with prosecutors, had shown remorse, expressed initial reluctance to carry out the destruction, and stopped the use of bulldozers at all but one of the shrines, limiting the extent of the destruction.
In a formal statement last month, Mr. Mahdi said he regretted his actions and begged the people of Timbuktu for forgiveness. He said he had lost his way when he joined “a group of deviant people of Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine,” an Islamist offshoot that held sway in northern Mali in 2012.
A French-led military force recaptured Timbuktu the next year.
All nine of the smashed shrines, modest structures of mud and stones, each about the size of a large room, have since been rebuilt over the tombs, with foreign donors paying for the restoration. The disfigured door of an age-old local mosque has also been repaired. All but one of the structures were part of the Timbuktu world heritage site recognized by Unesco.
Judge Pangalangan found that Mr. Mahdi, as the head of an Ansar Dine morality brigade, organized and oversaw the attacks on the tombs, and “directly participated” in the attacks on five shrines.
The leadership of Ansar Dine believed that the shrines violated Islamic legal codes.
“Despite his initial reservations, Mr. al-Mahdi accepted to conduct the attack without hesitation, on receipt of the instruction,” Judge Pangalangan said. “Mr. al-Mahdi wrote a sermon dedicated to the destruction of the mausoleums, which was read at the Friday Prayer at the launch of the attack. He personally determined the sequence in which the buildings were to be attacked.”
Judge Pangalangan noted that “crimes against property are generally of lesser gravity than crimes against persons,” but he also noted that Timbuktu was a world symbol for the expansion of Islam in Africa, and that the shrines were used as places of prayer and pilgrimage to which people were deeply attached.
Mr. Mahdi’s case has put a new focus on cultural destruction as a war crime, or as a crime against humanity. It reflects a growing belief that international law must address deliberate attacks on a people’s heritage when they are an intrinsic part of warfare, meant to destroy a group’s history and identity.
The case comes amid growing concern about the fate of many cultural and religious monuments in the Middle East and North Africa. Temples, churches, archaeological sites, libraries and museums have been attacked by Islamists who regard them as pagan or idolatrous, and who have often posted images of their destruction online.
No international court has jurisdiction over crimes in those countries, nor over continued cultural devastation in large parts of Yemen. Iraq, Syria and Yemen are not members of the International Criminal Court.
Mr. Mahdi, who was arrested in Niger in 2014 when French troops intercepted a jihadist convoy, was the only one of the senior leaders in the takeover of Timbuktu to end up in court.
It was not immediately clear where he will serve his sentence.