ICC Hears Groundbreaking Case on Timbuktu’s Cultural Destruction

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A groundbreaking case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is underway, prosecuting a former Islamist rebel for the destruction of cultural sites in Timbuktu. The man at the center of the case, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, has pleaded guilty to the act of war crimes for the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque at the UNESCO Heritage Site.

The case is the first of its kind at the ICC – which in the past has only prosecuted individuals for crimes against people and communities. It is also the first time that someone on trial has ever pleaded guilty.

Mahdi told the court, “I am really sorry, I am really remorseful, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused. I would like to give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world, not to get involved in the same acts I got involved in, because they are not going to lead to any good for humanity.”

The court will proceed with the case and if found guilty Mahdi could face up to 30 years in prison.

Amnesty International has spoken out about the case, saying that it sets a precedent for those involved in cultural destruction, “Attacks against religious and historical monuments violate cultural rights and can cause significant harm to the local and sometimes broader communities. They are war crimes and those suspected of carrying out such attacks should be prosecuted.”

However they were also quick to point out that there are numerous human victims in Mali who still deserve justice: “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.”

The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage in 2012 was done by Ansar Eddine, a mostly Tuareg Islamist group that took part in Mali’s northern wars. Linked to Al Qaeda, they invaded the Timbuktu area in March 2012, imposed Sharia law on the inhabitants who lived there, and set about destroying numerous cultural heritage sites.

Why Did Islamists Destroy Islamic Heritage Sites?

It might be confusing as to why an Islamist group would go after, and destroy certain areas of Timbuktu. After all the famed city was the center of Islamic learning and scholarship from the 13th-17th century. It not only helped spread Islam throughout West Africa, but contributed hundreds of thousands of books and cherished manuscripts throughout the world.

However, Ansar Eddine follow a particularly strict brand of Islam that considers it idolatry to keep mausoleums to ‘worship’ prominent Sufi members. But this isn’t an issue that ends with the sectarian divide between Sunni and Sufi. This is a tradition that stretches back to Abd al-Wahhab – the father of Wahhabism which is practiced in Saudi Arabia. He famously destroyed numerous shrines and burial sites of venerated members in Islam as he blazed his way through Arabia during the 1700s.

As the al-Saud family rose to power and Saudi Arabia was born, they adopted his potent brand of religious fanaticism, including his penchant for destroying any perceived form of “idolatry.” In fact, as recently as last year, a proposal to remove the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s tomb and bury him in an unmarked location sparked massive controversy within the country.

Many are now pointing to the cultural destruction meted out by the Islamic State, in its recent destruction of cultural sites in Iraq and Syria, including the ancient site of  Palmyra. If this ICC case proves successful it could set a path that would bring those responsible for destroying Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage to trial. And although it’s important not to lose sight of the human victims of these movements, it is important that insurgencies around the world see that the destruction of thousands of years of heritage will not take place with impunity.

Photo Credit: Emilio Labrador Santiago/Wikimedia

Original Publication: Care2

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