On Monday, a member of a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda stood in front of the Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC) and pleaded guilty to charges that he organized and oversaw the destruction of several holy sites in Timbuktu, Mali, roughly four years ago. Expressing regret and remorse, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi admitted to the allegations in the landmark case—the first time that the destruction of cultural heritage was prosecuted as a war crime at the ICC. Under the terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors are recommending a sentence of nine to 11 years out of a possible 30, all while avoiding a potentially lengthy and expensive trial.
In statements to the court, prosecutors alleged that Mahdi, a radical Islamist who helmed a so-called morality brigade, “identified the sites to be destroyed” and “provided [followers] the means” to do so. Mahdi was charged with the destruction of nine mausoleums and one mosque during Mali’s period of unrest in 2012, which saw radical Islamist groups targeting ancient manuscripts, historic sites, and other pieces of cultural heritage seen as idolatrous. Word of the wave of attacks spread internationally, alerting government officials to the damage (both targeted and collateral) that ancient sites face in war zones across the globe.
Why Prosecute for Cultural Destruction?
The much-publicized indictment of Mahdi at the ICC is something of a response. “The whole idea of these kinds of cases is for them to act as a deterrent,” said Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. Indeed, rather than indict Mahdi for other serious crimes he is suspected of committing, prosecutors narrowed their scope to focus solely on charges of cultural heritage destruction.
Though generally hailing the outcome, Daniels noted that one potential “cause for concern” is that groups looking for a global platform and international publicity may increase their attacks on antiquity in an effort to gain the attention of the ICC. But, Daniels adds, that’s an “unavoidable risk” of any major prosecution.
Others caution that the successful prosecution of Mahdi for cultural heritage destruction should not overshadow the other crimes that are occurring in Mali, or mark the end of intervention by the ICC in such cases. Following Mahdi’s admission of guilt, Amnesty International’s senior legal advisor Erica Bussey released
a statement that affirmed the importance of the ICC prosecution and called Mahdi’s acts war crimes. But, she added, “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.”