THE HAGUE – Prosecutors on Tuesday will unveil charges against an alleged al-Qaida-linked Islamist accused of destroying monuments at the fabled city of Timbuktu in an unprecedented case before the world’s only permanent war crimes court.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi will be the first jihadi to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the first person in its dock facing war crimes charges for allegedly ordering an attack on a historic monument.
Prosecutors will be seeking to convince three judges they have enough evidence to try al-Faqi, who is about 40, in what will also be the first case brought by the ICC over the extremist violence that rocked the West African nation of Mali from 2012 to 2013.
The two-day hearing at the court in The Hague has been called to confirm the charges against al-Faqi, before the start of an eventual trial at a later date.
Straddling the southern gateway of the Sahara Desert and a protected World Heritage site, the mere mention of Timbuktu, which was once a key trading post, evokes centuries of history.
So there was global outcry when jihadis overran it in early 2012, and attacked its ancient earthen mausoleums dating back to the city’s golden age as an economic, intellectual and spiritual center in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The city’s inhabitants believed that the tombs of Muslim saints protected them from danger and appealed to the saints for help. The tombs’ inhabitants are roughly equivalent to Christian saints, according to Malian experts. People would come to ask them to intervene for marriages, to make the rains come, or to seek their help in preventing famine.
UNESCO describes them as “pilgrimage sites for Malians and neighboring West African countries.”
The earthen mausoleums were constructed after the tombs were re-opened by those who believed they could gain power from proximity to the saints’ remains.
According to the ICC arrest warrant, al-Faqi is accused of being “responsible individually and jointly with others … for committing war crimes by deliberately attacking” religious and historic monuments between June 30 and July 10, 2012.
“I think this is an extremely powerful case,” said Stephen Rapp, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes. “In these sorts of conflicts, the destruction of religious, cultural or historical objects, and the patrimony of the people, is another way in which you destroy a civilization, destroy a religion — the kind of things on which life is based in our societies.”
Timbuktu, founded in the 11th century, was “one of the great centers of Islamic learning in the world, a center of civilization at a time when Europe was in the Dark Ages,” said Rapp, now a distinguished fellow with The Hague Institute for Global Justice.
But some rights groups fear scores of victims from the violence that beset northern Mali will not see justice done, urging that charges be widened against al-Faqi to include rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage.
Carrie Comer, permanent representative to the ICC for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said it is a “fascinating case.”
“We definitely believe that the destruction of cultural property and heritage is indeed a war crime,” she said. “However, it is a bit of challenge for those of us who work with victims in Mali because the destruction of cultural property is not the only thing that this man has been accused of.”
She highlighted “credible allegations” made against al-Faqi and 14 others in Malian courts accusing them of war crimes, including sexual atrocities.
“It is difficult to reconcile that this person who has criminal complaints against him in Mali for much broader charges is only being charged with destruction of cultural property.”
A leader of the Ansar Dine extremist group, al-Faqi was unexpectedly handed over to the tribunal in The Hague in September by Mali’s neighbor, Niger.
Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg group, held sway over Mali’s desert north together with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a third local group, until being routed in a French-led intervention in January 2013. Much of the northern stretches, however, remain out of the government’s control.
A member of an Islamic court set up by the jihadis to enforce strict Shariah law, al-Faqi is alleged to have jointly ordered or carried out the destruction of nine mausoleums and Timbuktu’s famous Sidi Yahia mosque.
The jihadis considered Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988 and dubbed the “city of 333 saints,” as idolatrous.
UNESCO has now restored the 14 destroyed earthen shrines at the city about 1,000 km (600 miles) northeast of Mali’s capital, Bamako.
The reconstruction of the shrines began in March 2014, relying heavily on traditional methods and employing local masons.
To make sure the rebuilt shrines matched the old ones as closely as possible, work was checked against old photos and local elders were consulted throughout the process — an important step in a city where culture has traditionally been passed on by word of mouth.
Several countries and organizations financed the reconstruction, including UNESCO.
Work finished on the site in July 2015, and a ceremony marking the completion was held Feb. 4. Five head of cattle were ritually sacrificed just after dawn, ahead of a reading of the entire Muslim holy book the Quran and the handing of the keys to the families in charge of their care.
But as the world witnesses the destruction of other cultural treasures by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq the case could act as a powerful warning and help persuade nations to pursue such charges, added Rapp.