Judges at the International Criminal Court ordered a radical Islamist on Tuesday to serve nine years in prison for his role in demolishing historic Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, in the court’s first prosecution of the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.
The judges said that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of a jihadist group linked to Al Qaeda, had committed a war crime in the summer of 2012 when he organized the smashing of the revered shrines, which were built centuries ago above the tombs of venerated Muslim holy men and scholars.
Mr. Mahdi, who was born in Mali around 1975, stood and listened to a translation in Arabic as the presiding judge, Raul Cano Pangalangan, read out the sentence in English. The session was broadcast from the court, in The Hague.
Although the crime of destroying cultural heritage is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, Mr. Mahdi’s sentence was at the low end of the prosecutors’ recommendation: nine to 11 years. Judge Pangalangan noted five mitigating factors: Mr. Mahdi had admitted his guilt, cooperated with prosecutors, shown remorse and initially advised against the demolition.
In a formal statement last month, Mr. Mahdi said he regretted his actions and begged the people of Timbuktu for forgiveness. He said he had been swept up in an evil wave when he joined “a group of deviant people of Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine,” an Islamist offshoot that held sway in northern Mali in 2012. A French-led military force recaptured Timbuktu the next year.
All nine of the smashed shrines — modest structures of mud and stones, each about the size of a large room — have since been rebuilt over the tombs, with foreign donors paying for the restoration. The disfigured door of an age-old local mosque has also been repaired. All but one of the structures were part of the Timbuktu world heritage site recognized by Unesco.
Judge Pangalangan found that Mr. Mahdi, as the head of an Ansar Dine morality brigade, organized and oversaw the attacks on the tombs, and “directly participated” in some. The leadership of Ansar Dine decided that the shrines violated Islamic legal codes.
“Despite his initial reservations, Mr. al-Mahdi accepted to conduct the attack without hesitation,” Judge Pangalangan said. “Mr. al-Mahdi wrote a sermon dedicated to the destruction of the mausoleums, which was read at the Friday Prayer at the launch of the attack.”
Judge Pangalangan noted that “crimes against property are generally of lesser gravity than crimes against persons,” but he also noted that Timbuktu was a world symbol for the expansion of Islam in Africa, and that the shrines were “among the most cherished buildings of the city” and were places of pilgrimage where people went to pray.
Mr. Mahdi’s case has put a new focus on cultural destruction as a war crime, or as a crime against humanity. It reflects a growing belief that international law must address deliberate attacks on a people’s heritage when they are an intrinsic part of warfare, meant to destroy a group’s history and identity.
While the case against Mr. Mahdi was a first for the International Criminal Court, the United Nations tribunal dealing with crimes in the former Yugoslavia has handed down war crimes convictions for cultural destruction, specifically the shelling of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik and architectural monuments in Mostar, Bosnia.
The case comes amid growing concern about the fate of many cultural and religious monuments in the Middle East and North Africa. Temples, churches, archaeological sites, libraries and museums have been attacked by Islamists who regard them as pagan or idolatrous, and who have often posted images of their destruction online. The blowing up of the giant Buddha statues at Bamian in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 is among the most notorious examples, and jihadists have more recently destroyed treasures in Nimrud, Iraq; Palmyra, Syria; and other pre-Islamic and medieval sites in the region.
No international court has jurisdiction over crimes in those countries, nor over continued cultural devastation in large parts of Yemen. Iraq, Syria and Yemen are not members of the International Criminal Court, and it cannot act there without a specific mandate from the United Nations Security Council. The prosecutor took on the events in Mali after its government said it was incapable of handling the inquiry and asked the court to intervene.
Conferences and meetings of diplomats and politicians have taken place this year, with participants calling for the defense of cultural heritage. 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 hearings involving Mr. Mahdi, the first jihadist to appear before an international court, have thrown additional light on events in Timbuktu during its occupation by jihadists, and on a defendant about whom little was known until Niger handed him over to the court last year.
From court filings, although some are heavily redacted, a picture emerges of a man who was known and liked in Timbuktu as an Islamic scholar. Mr. Mahdi, who has eight children and had spent time in Saudi Arabia and Libya, did not enlist as a fighter when Ansar Dine and Malian separatists overran the north of the country in 2012, according to the court records. But the extremists asked him to use his knowledge of the Quran and Islamic teachings to help set up a morality brigade and an Islamic tribunal.
Those institutions quickly imposed an extreme form of Shariah, the legal code based on the Quran, on the desert towns, where people were accustomed to a tolerant strain of Islam. They issued bans on listening to music and smoking in public, forbade slogans and posters showing photographs, barred men and women from mingling unless they were related and ordered women to cover themselves from head to toe.
Yet the Islamists also arrested or kidnapped young Muslim women to be forced into marriage or to be used as sexual slaves by foreign fighters. Fatou Bensouda, the court’s prosecutor, said by telephone that her office was still investigating those and other crimes. “This was only our first case in Mali,” she said.
Investigations are said to be hampered by continuing insecurity in northern Mali. Florent Geel, Africa director of the International Federation for Human Rights, said that his group’s investigators had gathered accounts of rape from more than 50 women and girls, but that others had yet to speak out because they feared being repudiated by their families.
Mayombo Kassongo, a lawyer representing victims, told the court that they doubted the sincerity of Mr. Mahdi’s regrets, saying he was aiming to reduce his sentence and avoid paying compensation. The lawyer said the victims held Mr. Mahdi, as the head of the morality police, accountable for the sexual slavery and forced marriages.
Mr. Mahdi, who was arrested in Niger in 2014 when French troops intercepted a jihadist convoy, was the only one of the senior leaders in the takeover of Timbuktu to end up in court.
It was not immediately clear where he will serve his sentence.