A Malian Islamist militant accused of attacking the fabled desert city of Timbuktu chose its most revered ancient shrines for destruction “to serve as examples”, the International Criminal Court heard yesterday.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty as his unprecedented war crimes trial opened on Monday before The Hague-based ICC, where he stands accused of razing some of the west African city’s most historic mausoleums.
Mahdi, aged about 40, is the first Islamic extremist charged by the tribunal and the first charged with crimes arising out of the conflict in Mali.
The wanton destruction by Islamist militants triggered global outcry, and archaeologists hope the trial will send a stern warning that such plundering of the world’s common heritage will not go unpunished.
During an interview with ICC investigators in early September last year, Mahdi said he chose to destroy the mausoleums drawing the largest numbers of Muslim worshippers, a witness said yesterday.
The ICC has heard how militants including Mahdi regarded worshipping at the shrines as idolatrous, according to their strict interpretation under Shariah law.
“He said he selected cemeteries based on where most ... ‘transgressions’ had taken place ... for them to be the best examples,” said the witness whose voice and identity was masked.
“They decided to start in the North and move to the South,” added the witness, who conducted an interview with Mahdi in Niger after he was arrested.
Prosecutors showed shocking satellite images, pictures and video footage on Monday of the wave of destruction that followed after armed militants took control of northeastern Timbuktu in 2012.
The bespectacled Mahdi is accused of “intentionally directing attacks” against nine of Timbuktu’s famous mausoleums as well as the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.
Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu’s very name evokes centuries of history and has been dubbed “the city of 333 saints” for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries it has been designated as a Unesco world heritage site.
Unesco’s assistant director general for culture Francesco Bandarin, told judges how the world’s cultural organisation only took Timbuktu off its world heritage “in danger” sites list in 2005 after years of struggle to preserve the city from desert elements.
“When a site is destroyed deliberately ... it sometimes is a wound that is very hard to heal,” Bandarin said.
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