In a historic decision today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted an individual who destroyed cultural heritage of committing a war crime. Judges sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of an Al Qaeda–linked jihadist group, to 9–11 years for attacking nine centuries-old Muslim shrines and a mosque in Timbuktu. As the head of a morality brigade for the group Ansar Dine, Mahdi played a key role in planning the 2012 destructions, considering the mausoleums blasphemous according to Islamic codes. His trial, which began in February, was the first of its kind undertaken by the international court.
“The mausoleums of saints and mosques of Timbuktu were an integral part of the religious life of its inhabitants and constitute a common heritage for the community,” the ICC wrote in a statement. “They reflected their commitment to Islam and played a psychological role to the extent of being perceived as protecting the people of Timbuktu. Furthermore, all the sites but one were UNESCO World Heritage sites. As such, the attacks on them appear to be of particular gravity as their destruction does not only affect the direct victims of the crimes but also people throughout Mali and the international community.”
The court’s decision sets an important precedent of holding people accountable for organized attacks on heritage sites and objects, regarding such acts as offenses against humanity. Individuals and organizations from the United Nations to UNESCO have previously expressed similar views towards ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq — neither of which is a member of the International Criminal Court. According to the New York Times, Afghanistan also does not fall under the jurisdiction of the court, which means the Taliban’s destruction of the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan there could not be prosecuted.
Madhi, who pled guilty to committing a war crime, was the first jihadist to appear in an international court. Prosecutors hope his groundbreaking sentence may deter future attacks on heritage sites around the world, particularly with so many under threat from extremist groups. In the words of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, the ICC decision is “a crucial step to end impunity for the destruction of cultural heritage.
“It confirms earlier decisions taken by international jurisdictions, and it amplifies them in a judgment entirely devoted to the destruction of cultural heritage,” she said in a statement. “This case reminds us all of how heritage protection has become a major security issue, which cannot be delinked from the protection of human lives.”