Opinion: The Timbuktu destruction trial was groundbreaking | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.09.2016
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Opinion: The Timbuktu destruction trial was groundbreaking

The ICC's Timbuktu verdict shows cultural heritage belongs to us all, says DW's Stefan Dege. Ahmad al-Faqi Al-Mahdi has been sentenced to nine years in jail for destroying cultural sites - a landmark decision.

Ahmad al-Faqi Al-Mahdi appeared in the courtroom wearing a grey suit and serious glasses; his jet-black hair was combed back. He looked more like a scholar than a warrior.

Yet that wasn't what made the Timbuktu destruction trial so particular. For the first time, an Islamic extremist was prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was also the first time The Hague's ICC dealt with the destruction of cultural heritage. That's what made the case unprecedented: For the first time, the ICC was recognizing destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.

Al-Mahdi led the Islamic moral police in Timbuktu, Mali, while it was controlled by armed Islamists from April 2012 to January 2013. From June 30 to July 11, 2012, he organized and led the destruction of historical buildings in this city that has been an African center of international culture and learning since the Middle Ages. Among the razed monuments were 16 famous mausoleums.

Stefan Dege (DW/K. Dahmann)

DW's Stefan Dege

Guilty plea from the start

Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty at the beginning of the trial - another first at the ICC. This facilitated the judges' work; it took them less time than usual to issue a verdict. The sentence of nine years was not surprising.

After all, the Timbuktu trial aims to be exemplary for so many other cases. Recent destruction of cultural heritage includes the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, dynamited by the Taliban, and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, destroyed by "Islamic State" militants.

Those who destroy cultural heritage shall be tried on an international level. Those who, like Ahmad Al-Mahdi and his group of religious extremists, destroy sacred Islamic monuments shall not stay unpunished. 

The Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues because they considered them "blasphemous idols." In Timbuktu, Islamist extremists destroyed sites bearing testament to the great Islamic period of the 16th and 17th centuries as they felt these monuments did not comply with their interpretation of an originally "pure" Islam, which they aimed to reestablish.

Destroyed mausoleum in Timbuktu (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Ahmed)

The 14 mausoleums in Timbuktu that were destroyed by extremists have since been reconstructed

Cultural heritage belongs to everyone

The ICC's verdict in The Hague has demonstrated that cultural heritage belongs to all humankind. Those who destroy it are committing war crimes. Impunity needs to end.

Hopefully this message will also reach Syria. However, the situation there is already lost. Even if it wanted to, the ICC would have little impact in the war-torn country. Syria is not a member of the United Nations; the UN's international institutions are powerless in this case. The UN Security Council is a toothless tiger, as the conflict surrounding the bombing of Aleppo has demonstrated.

Justifying the Timbuktu case was an article of the ICC stating that "intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected" constitutes a war crime.  This applies to what the Assad government has been doing for years.

The trial and the verdict from The Hague offer hope, but it is still unclear how this case will resonate around the world.

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