5 facts about Malian war criminal trial

For first time destruction of cultural heritage sites is referred to as a war crime in the trial of a Malian militant who is accused of destroying historical buildings in the ancient city of Timbuktu.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi ( a.k.a. Abu Tourab) enters the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague the Netherlands, September 30,2015.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sentenced Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi to nine years in jail for the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Mali’s ancient city Timbuktu.

Here are five simple facts about the trial.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi appears at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, August 22,2016.

1. Who is Mahdi and why was he on trial?

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was a member of the Ansar Dine armed group, which has links to Al Qaeda.

Last August, Mahdi was found guilty of destroying cultural heritage sites in Mali’s ancient city of Timbuktu by prosecutors in the ICC.

According to court documents, as a religious scholar, Mahdi directed militants to demolish several sites with pickaxes and chisels during an armed conflict in Mali in 2012.

A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute, or Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu January 31, 2013.

2. Why is the case important?

The trial is significant because for the first time, the definition of war criminality was extended to include the destruction of cultural heritage sites.

Also for the first time, a suspected militant has stood trial at the ICC and pleaded guilty.

More than 95 percent of the manuscripts have been saved from destruction.

The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by militants, is seen in Timbuktu, July 25, 2013.

3. Why were historical sites destroyed?

The militants considered shrines, as well as priceless ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu's golden age, to be pagan symbols.

Destroyed sites included the 16th century mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, who was the rector of the world-famous Sankore University, as well as the shrine of Sidi Ahmed ar-Raqqad, who wrote a book on traditional pharmacology in the 17th century.

The mosque of Sidi Yahya, which was built in the 15th century, was also destroyed.

According to local belief, Sidi Yahya was the patron saint of his town and the opening of the main gate to his shrine signified that the end of the world was near. 

A man stands in front of the Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu, central Mali.

4. What makes Timbuktu an ancient city? 

Timbuktu is famous for its unique mud and wood architecture.

The city was founded in the 11th century and became a regional economic and intellectual hub for the ancient Malian Empire. It has been the heart of Islamic education and Sufi mysticism in the West Africa region since the 13th century.

The historical sites were added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1988.

A UN peacekeeper stands near to a historical mosque in Timbuktu.

5. How did the Mali conflict start?

Drought, corruption, political marginalisation and frustration among people in northern Mali triggered an armed conflict in 2012.

Along with Tuareg rebels, several armed groups linked to Al Qaeda started to launch attacks and seized many cities, including Timbuktu, in the northern part of the country.

A year later, a UN-backed military intervention led by France forced armed groups to retreat from the towns they captured.

TRTWorld and agencies