The ICC prosecutor on Tuesday accused a suspected Malian jihadist linked to Al-Qaeda of war crimes for having led and participated in the destruction of mausoleums protected by Unesco in Timbuktu in 2012. The devastation had sparked indignation in the world.
“We must act in the face of the destruction and mutilation of our common heritage,” said Fatou Bensouda . She was speaking at the opening in The Hague of the so-called confirmation of charges hearing, which is used to determine whether the prosecutor’s evidence is sufficient to lead to a trial.
These destructions constituted “an attack against an entire population and against its cultural identity”, she added, stressing that these structures were important “for the whole world”. “Such an attack cannot go unpunished,” she said.
“This is the first time that my office has accepted such a charge relating to the destruction of religious and cultural property and buildings,” added Ms. Bensouda, inviting the judges to seize this chance to “fight against this scourge which is often the prelude to the worst exactions against the populations”.
“Attacks against cultural heritage are constant. Unfortunately, there are too many recent examples, such as in the cities of Aleppo and Palmyra, in Syria,” she insisted.
First imprisoned jihadist
The suspect, the Tuareg Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi , is the first jihadist imprisoned by the ICC. According to the prosecution, he was one of the leaders of Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group associated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM.
Aged around 40, he was responsible for war crimes by destroying nine mausoleums and one of the city’s most important mosques, Sidi Yahia , between June 30 and July 10, 2012, the prosecution claims.
Ancient merchant city
Founded between the 11th and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Timbuktu was a great intellectual center of Islam and a former prosperous merchant city of caravans. The “city of 333 saints” had its peak in the 15th century.
The destruction of fourteen mausoleums of Muslim saints by Ansar Dine in the name of the fight against “idolatry” had caused outrage.
Dressed in a long traditional white garment, the suspect, for whom the proceedings are translated into Arabic, listened to the prosecutor attentively, sometimes raising an eyebrow at her statements.
He is also the first suspect arrested in the Court’s investigation into the 2012-2013 violence in Mali and the first prosecuted by the ICC for the destruction of religious buildings and historical monuments.
In 2013, the ICC opened an investigation into abuses committed in Mali by jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. They had taken control of the north of the country in March-April 2012, after the rout of the army in the face of a Tuareg-dominated rebellion.
These jihadists were largely driven out after the launch in January 2013, at the initiative of France, of an international military intervention. But entire areas of the country are still beyond the control of Malian and foreign forces.
As for the massacred sites, Unesco has already restored the 14 mausoleums destroyed in Timbuktu.