Malians dissatisfied with light sentence for Islamist who desecrated Timbuktu | Africa | DW | 28.09.2016
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Malians dissatisfied with light sentence for Islamist who desecrated Timbuktu

Mali has welcomed as a good start the ICC ruling against an Islamist for destroying Timbuktu's cultural heritage, but citizens feel that those committing more severe crimes must also be brought to book.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has handed down its judgment in record time: the Malian Islamist, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, has been sentenced to nine years imprisonment. The court usually takes years to hand to down a verdict, but in this case, things moved very quickly. The former teacher entered a guilty plea at the trial, which began in August.

In summer 2012, as a member of the Islamist group, Ansar Dine, he organized attacks on world heritage-listed monuments in Timbuktu. The group destroyed nine mausoleums and a centuries-old mosque door (pictured above).

Incomprehension by victims

The international public has been eagerly awaiting the judgment: this is the first trial regarding the destruction of cultural heritage and the first time an Islamic militant has been tried at the international court. It is also the first time that a defendant at the ICC has admitted his guilt and shown remorse.

But there has been only moderate interest in the trial in Mali itself. Katja Müller, from the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Bamako says, "The trial has been reported here, but people in Timbuktu, as well as in other parts of the country, have other priorities."

During the conflict Islamic militants in Mali murdered, raped and tortured people. "People have trouble understanding why these crimes are not being punished," says Müller. Mahdi's trial seems merely symbolic given the extent of impunity that is apparent in Mali.

The cultural specialist from Timbuktu, Al-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, agrees with Müller. On the one hand, he is happy about the judgment protecting cultural heritage in his city. But on the other hand there are people freely walking around, mocking the public, who have committed far more serious crimes.

"The international justice system could have done a great service for reconciliation in this country if they had put those responsible for these serious crimes out of action," he says.

Niederlande Timbuktu Gerichtsprozess Al Mahdi im Gerihctssaal

Mahdi - a former teacher and Islamic scholar - pleaded guilty to his crimes during the trial in August

Reconciliation will need time and patience

Of course it is easy to understand that victims of this conflict are disappointed when action is taken for merely destroying cultural property, says Christoph Safferling. Yet the international law expert from the University of Erlangen in Germany is pleased with the outcome: it is a piece of luck that the defendant confessed his crimes. "This meant that it was an extremely quick trial for the International Criminal Court, " he explains, adding, "There will need to be a lot of patience in terms of dealing with other crimes that have occurred - but it's not over yet."

Amnesty International has been calling for those responsible for other more severe crimes to be immediately brought to justice. In a statement, the organization praised the conviction of Mahdi as sending a clear signal that the destruction of religious and historical monuments will not be tolerated.

"Despite this positive development it must not be forgotten that hundreds of civilians have been murdered, raped and tortured." Amnesty International is critical of the fact that the ICC has not yet issued any arrest warrants for these crimes. The human rights organization has stipulated that all the serious crimes that have taken place in Mali since 2012 must be criminally prosecuted, particularly the violence committed by government troops.

Symbolbild Überfällen und Entführungen in Mali (DW/A. Kriesch)

Mali's army and insurgents have both been accused of severe rights abuses

'This judgment is not enough'

For Christoph Safferling, the judgment that has been handed down against Mahdi is an important step in the war against Islamist terrorists. In Mali, this terrorism was evidenced in particular through the destruction of cultural heritage. "This movement against freedom has been brought to trial and has been clearly stopped," he says.

But while Safferling sees Mahdi's nine-year-imprisonment as a clear win in the war against terror, the deputy mayor of Timbuktu, Drawi Assékou Maiga, is disappointed by the sentence. "For the citizens of Timbuktu, as well as for all the people of Mali, this sentence is just not good enough! Mahdi might have asked for forgiveness, but that doesn't mean his brutal actions can be forgotten."

Mahdi himself should be happy with the verdict. He already signaled in the run-up to the trial that he would unquestioningly accept a sentence of between nine and 11 years imprisonment.

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