Viet Nam News
THE HAGUE - An unprecedented case opens on Monday at the International Criminal Court when an alleged Malian jihadist is set to plead guilty to the war crime of destroying the UNESCO world heritage site of Timbuktu.
Some 55 sites around the world, including the Bamiyan valley where the Taliban blew up ancient giant Buddhas in 2001 and Palmyra in Syria vandalised by the Islamic State group in the past two years, remain on UNESCO’s endangered list.
And experts hope the trial and sentencing of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for the 2012 attacks on Timbuktu will send a message that such cultural destruction will not go unpunished.
Plucked from the edges of the Sahara to a courtroom on the sand dunes of The Hague, all eyes will be on al-Mahdi, until now unknown to the outside world.
He stands accused of the war crime of "intentionally directing attacks" against nine of Timbuktu’s famous mausoleums as well as the Sidi Yahia mosque between 30 June and 11 July 2012.
Al-Mahdi is expected to become the first person to confess his guilt at the tribunal as well as the first to face a single war crime charge of destroying cultural heritage.
"The destruction of cultural heritage has become a tactic of war to disseminate fear and hatred in modern conflicts," UNESCO director general Irina Bokovo wrote recently in the online magazine International Criminal Justice Today.
Such attacks seek "to tear at the fabric of society, to deny human rights and to quash the rule of law," she said, adding it was "critical" they should "not go unpunished."
’Not just stones’
Al-Mahdi is also the first alleged jihadist to stand trial, and the first person to be charged with crimes arising out of the Mali conflict.
ICC prosecutors allege that al-Mahdi, born in 1975, was a member of Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg movement that in 2012 took control of Timbuktu some 1,000km northeast of Bamako, along with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
As the head of the "Hisbah" or the "Manners Brigade" he ordered the attacks on the shrines, ICC prosecutors say.
The site has now been reconstructed and a French-led operation has mostly chased the jihadists from the area, although extremist groups still pose a threat.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda insists that "what is at stake here is not just walls and stones".
Founded between the 5th and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu 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, the site was condemned as idolatrous by the jihadists.
The attacks were "a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots," Bensouda said, and "the magnitude of the loss... was felt by the whole of humanity".
Al-Mahdi, handed over to the ICC by Niger in late 2015, intends to plead guilty, as he is "a Muslim who believes in justice," defence lawyer Mohamed Aouini told a June hearing.
"He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed," Aouini said, adding that al-Mahdi also sought "pardon" for his acts.
Erasing the past
Observers, while welcoming the focus on cultural destruction, remain troubled that no other charges, such as for sexual violence committed during the conflict, have been brought.
"On the one hand we are really excited to see this being put up front as something that’s not really been prosecuted before in such seriousness," said
Mariana Pena, a legal expert with the Open Society Justice Initiative.
"On the other hand we are a bit disappointed that other crimes are not being put up for prosecution," she said.
The case has moved swiftly through the usually ponderous ICC process, and sentencing will likely come soon after the trial, set for five days.
But further prosecutions for such attacks won’t prove easy, experts warn, and more vandalism could follow as jihadists witness the "success" of their strategy, thanks in part to the internet.
Archaeology scholar Christopher Jones, who has catalogued dozens of attacks by IS (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria since 2014 on his blog "Gates of Nineveh" says it’s not just about wiping out a culture.
"By destroying a Shiite mosque, you’re also erasing an alternate system of belief which stands in opposition to the very things ISIS stands for," he said.
It attempts to "disconnect people from the things that tie them" to their homes, so they have "no past, nothing to go back to". - AFP