ICC hears first prosecution for cultural destruction

Ahmad Al Mahdi offers guilty plea for war crimes in Timbuktu, Mali
Patrick Steel
Ahmad Al Mahdi yesterday offered a guilty plea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands, which is hearing evidence that he committed war crimes regarding the destruction of historical and religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali.

It is the first international trial focusing on the destruction of historical and religious monuments, and the first ICC case where the defendant has made an admission of guilt.

A warrant for Al Mahdi’s arrest was issued on 18 September 2015, following evidence that he was responsible for intentionally directing attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion, including nine mausoleums and one mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, allegedly committed between 30 June 2012 and 10 July 2012.

A statement from the ICC said: “Al Mahdi was born in Agoune, 100 kilometres west of Timbuktu, Mali, and was an active personality in the context of the occupation of Timbuktu.

“He allegedly was a member of Ansar Eddine, a mainly Tuareg movement associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, working closely with the leaders of the two armed groups and in the context of the structures and institutions established by them.

“It is alleged that, until September 2012, he was the head of the ‘Hisbah’ (body set up to uphold public morals and prevent vice), set up in April 2012. He was also associated with the work of the Islamic Court of Timbuktu and participated in executing its decisions.

“The targeted buildings were regarded and protected as a significant part of the cultural heritage of Timbuktu and of Mali and did not constitute military objectives.

“They were specifically identified, chosen and targeted precisely in light and because of their religious and historical character. As a consequence of the attack, they were either completely destroyed or severely damaged. Their destruction was considered as a serious matter by the local population.”

The trial, which is in its second day, is now hearing evidence from the office of the prosecutor, with a judgement expected within a week.

“The case is extremely important, given it is the first time that someone has been prosecuted at the ICC for crimes against cultural property,” said Peter Stone, the Unesco chair in cultural property protection and peace, a professor of heritage studies and the head of the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University.

“With these cases clearly identifying illegal acts, countries not covered by specific legislation can use these as a precedent. We need to keep sending out the message that this is not an acceptable way of waging war.”

The UK government is moving to ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954, with the bill currently at the report stage. It is expected to pass the law at the end of the year, leading to ratification by March 2017.

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