The International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened proceedings against an Islamist militant from Mali for ordering the destruction of Timbuktu’s religious and cultural heritage.
The ICC says the trial wants to send the message that attacks on religious sites constitute war crimes.
"Such attacks affect humanity as a whole. We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage," prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in September.
The International Criminal Court has seen two ‘firsts’ in a single trial: the first war crimes proceedings for the destruction of cultural heritage, and the first confession and apology of a defendant.
Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi is on trial for ordering the destruction of religious and cultural monuments in Mali’s capital of Timbuktu.
Nine mausoleums and a mosque were destroyed by armed groups during Mali’s civil war in 2012, at least one of which was a World Heritage Site.
Al Madhi was a member of the Ansare Dine rebel group which seized control of the capital in conjunction with Al Qaeda.
He enforced the rulings of the Islamic Court of Timbuktu, set up by the groups, and ran the ‘Manners Brigade’.
Fadi El Abdallah, spokesperson for the ICC, said the proceedings are meant to send a clear message.
"We believe that it is important to send this signal everywhere: that attacks against historic or religious buildings constitutes a war crime. It is a grave conduct and a serious crime that cannot remain unpunished. It is important to give the possibility to the tribunals and courts that have jurisdiction to be able to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes."
This is also the first time a defendant on trial at the ICC has admitted to his crimes.
“Attacks against religious and historical monuments violate cultural rights and can cause significant harm to the local and sometimes broader communities. They are war crimes and those suspected of carrying out such attacks should be prosecuted,” said Amnesty International’s Senior Legal Advisor Erica Bussey.
“However, while this case breaks new ground for the ICC, we must not lose sight of the need to ensure accountability for other crimes under international law, including murder, rape and torture of civilians that have been committed in Mali since 2012.” Bussey added.
The maximum sentence that Mahdi could face is 30 years.
"It is also my hope that the years I will spend in prison will be source to purge the evil spirit that took me and I will keep my hopes high that the people will be able to forgive me," Mahdi said at his trial.