In a world first, a jihadi charged with wrecking cultural heritage has gone on trial in The Hague. Malian Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty to a charge of directing attacks in Timbuktu.
Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty Monday before the world's only permanent war crimes court to a charge that in 2012 he "intentionally" directed attacks on nine historic Timbuktu mausoleums and its Sidi Yahia mosque - works dating back to the 15th century.
"Your honour, regrettably I have to say that what I heard so far is accurate and reflects the events. I plead guilty," Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi told the International Criminal Court (ICC), adding that such acts did "not to lead to any good for humanity."
Prosecutors revealed at the trial's start that a deal with his defense lawyers could reduce the likely jail term to between nine to 11 years. A maximum sentence would be 30 years.
Al Mahdi, who was handed over to the ICC by Niger late last year, said he entered his guilty plea "with deep regret and great pain" and asked Malians in Timbuktu for their forgiveness."
"I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way," he told the Netherlands-based court, adding that he also sought forgiveness from "the ancestors of the mausoleums I have destroyed."
Al Mahdi, aged about 40 (pictured above at an appearance last September), is the first Islamic extremist charged by the ICC and the first person to face a solo charge of cultural destruction.
International outcries have followed those 2012 attacks in Mali and more recent "Islamic State" destruction of heritage sites in Syria, such as Palmyra and Aleppo.
Five days have been set aside for al Mahdi's trial in the Netherlands before a three-judge ICC panel.
Assault on history
Before the trial, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said cultural destruction robbed future generations of their landmarks and their heritage. It was tantamount to "an assault on people's history," she said.
Defense lawyer Mohamed Aouini said previously al Mahdi was "a Muslim who believes in justice," who sought a pardon for his acts because "he wants to be truthful to himself."
Timbuktu, known as the "Pearl of the Desert" and listed as UNESCO-protected since 1988 was desecrated by Islamist fighters using pickaxes and chisels after they seized the remote city in April 2012.
One-room structures had housed the tombs of the great thinkers of the fame African cross-roads city, which from over the centuries came to be revered as a center of Islamic learning.
It lies some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) northeast of Bamako, the capital of Mali, where the United Nations now has a large peacekeeping force that has suffered numerous casualties.
Al-Madhi was a leading member of Ansar dine, a mainly Tuareg group which at the time held sway over Mali's desert north under a version of Islamic law which viewing such shrines as idolatrous.
It allied itself with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a third group until being routed during a French-led intervention in January of 2013.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said recently the case was close to her heart and that she "would never forget" the scenes of ransacked and damaged shrines she saw in 2013.
Reconstruction of Timbuktu's shrines began in March 2014, relying heavily on traditional methods and employing local masons.
Several countries and organizations including UNESCO financed the work and a ceremony marking completion was held on 4 February 2014.
ipj/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)