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In Timbuktu, a nine-year jail sentence for destroying ancient shrines

The International Criminal Court handed down its first sentence based on cultural destruction as a war crime.

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    Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi appears at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, August 22, 2016 at the start of his trial on charges of involvement in the destruction of historic mausoleums in Timbuktu during Mali's 2012 conflict.
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The first Muslim rebel to be tried in an international court for a war crime for destruction of cultural heritage was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Ahmad al-Fahdi al-Mahdi was handed the sentence by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday. Mr. Mahdi admitted guilt and expressed regret at the start of the trial in August when he said he was swept up by an “evil wave” during the 2012 Mali conflict, and led a team armed with pickaxes and shovels to raze 14 adobe mausoleums that date to the 14th century.

The trial and conviction is being received by human rights groups and international legal experts as a win in sending a message to other Islamic extremists about historical sites. The ICC lacks jurisdiction in Syria and Iraq, where Islamic State (IS) jihadists have wrought damage on UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nevertheless, the conviction shows extremists the world’s stance.

The trial “shows that the international community takes these things seriously,” Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford in August.

While IS commanders may hold little regard for the ICC, Judge Goldstone said, “regular and serious investigations and prosecutions will deter at least some of them, and that is ample justification.”

Nine of the tombs of Muslim-scholar saints Mahdi and others that the rebels wrecked are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built in Mali’s golden age, the tombs were seen as symbols of Mali as a trading hub and as a center of Sufi Islam, noted for its diversity, plurality, and spirit of inquiry, as Mr. Ford writes. But the mausoleums were also seen as idolatrous by the Islamic leaders of Timbuktu who took over the city in 2012.

That year, an Al-Qaeda affiliated group seized northern parts of the country, including Timbuktu and surrounding desert towns. Mahdi, a religious scholar, was asked by the group, Ansar Dine, to set up a morality brigade and an Islamic tribunal.

In addition to imposing a strict form of Sharia law, the brigade destroyed the modest shrines of stone and mud. After French and Malian troops recaptured the region in 2013, Mahdi was arrested in neighboring Niger in 2014. The Malian government then asked the ICC to try Mahdi.

The former teacher faced up to 30 years in prison. But his guilt admission was one of five mitigating circumstances the three-judge panel said led them to sentence him to just nine, after the prosecution and defense capped his prison time at 11 years.

“Your cooperation with the prosecution, the remorse and empathy you have expressed for the victims, your initial reluctance to commit the crime and the steps you took to limit the damage caused, and even ... your good behavior in detention,” were the four other mitigating circumstances, said Judge Raul Pangalangan, the presiding judge, according to The Atlantic.

The trial comes after the destruction of historical sites has attracted international alarm. In 2001, the Taliban blew up two monumental Buddha structures in Afghanistan. IS extremists more recently destroyed cultural sites in Syria and Iraq including in Palmyra.

But the ICC lacks jurisdiction in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen because those countries have not joined the international court.

The international community has tried to explore other ways to protect these sites, as religious extremists continue to target historical sites.

“Conferences and meetings of diplomats and politicians have taken place this year, with participants calling for the defense of cultural heritage,” writes Marlise Simons for The New York Times. “Just last week, the French president, François Hollande, announced the creation of a $100 million public-private partnership with the United Arab Emirates aimed at protecting endangered cultural sites or restoring ones that have been damaged.”

The nine mausoleums in Timbuktu on the UNESCO World Heritage list have since been rebuilt, paid for through foreign donations, according to the Times.  

Residents Reuters contacted in Timbuktu had mixed views about Mahdi’s verdict.

"Nine years in prison is little. But he deserves the sentence as an example for all who committed these barbaric acts," said Alhoussaini Saye, a teacher.

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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