Friday, 9 October 2015

Cultural heritage destruction prosecuted as a war crime for the first time: Islamist militant appears before ICC

In the first case of its kind, an alleged Islamist militant accused of destroying ancient monuments in Mali appeared last week at the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged with damaging humanity’s cultural heritage. It is the first time cultural heritage destruction has been prosecuted as a war crime; the ICC has traditionally focused on atrocities committed against individuals.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi appears at the ICC in the Hague, Netherlands (Image: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images)


Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi is charged with war crimes of directing attacks against historic religious monuments and buildings, including nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali.

Al Mahdi, from the Ansar Tuareg tribe, was allegedly an active personality in the context of the occupation of Timbuktu, a ‘zealous member’ of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg extremist militia with links to al-Qaeda, and the head of the Hesbah (known as the ‘Manners' Brigade’), which enforced strict Islamist law in Timbuktu during civil unrest in Mali in 2012 and 2013. He is also charged with implementing the hardline Sharia law rulings of the so-called Islamic Court of Timbuktu, in particular the destruction of the nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque.

The situation in Mali was referred to the ICC by Mali’s government in 2012, and following an investigation a warrant for Al Mahdi’s arrest was issued in September 2015. Al Mahdi was arrested by the authorities of Niger and handed over to the ICC shortly afterwards.

Timbuktu’s cultural heritage

Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the ‘city of 333 saints’, was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a centre for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. The mausoleums of Timbuktu have long been pilgrimage destinations for the people of Mali and neighbouring countries. As shrines to Timbuktu's founding fathers, who were venerated as saints by most of the city's inhabitants, they were widely believed to protect the city from danger. But fundamentalists considered this practice blasphemous. Of the city’s 16 mausoleums, some dating as far back as the 13th century, 14 were destroyed during Ansar Dine’s occupation of the city in 2012, along with mosques and approximately 4,000 ancient manuscripts.

Destruction of mausoleums and mosques during Timbuktu’s occupation (Image: AFP)

What next?

Following the defendant’s appearance before the Pre-Trial Chamber last week, a hearing is scheduled for 18 January 2016, where the Court will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a full trial.

This case is a watershed moment in the field of cultural heritage protection, and it has been suggested that the Court consider investigating the Islamic State's destruction of ancient archaeological sites in Palmyra. However, as neither Iraq nor Syria is a member of the ICC, the Court is unable to intervene without a mandate from the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile an initiative to reconstruct Timbuktu’s mausoleums led by the Malian government, UNESCO and international partners is nearing completion. “Here we have our response to extremism,” said UNESCO’s Director-General, “an example of the successful integration of culture in peace building and we must continue along this road.”

Reconstruction of Timbuktu’s mausoleums nears completion (Image: CRAterre/Thierry Joffroy)

The ICC’s case information sheet for The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi can be found here.

More information on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage Site page here.

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