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Islamic radical pleads guilty in historic war-crimes case of cultural destruction

The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants is seen in Timbuktu, Mali, in July, 2013.

JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

In an unprecedented war-crimes case, an Islamist radical has pleaded guilty to destroying ancient shrines in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu.

The guilty plea has set the stage for the world's first war-crimes conviction for cultural destruction, with huge implications for Islamists who have demolished ancient sites in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a former Islamist leader in northern Mali and the first jihadi to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, stood in a courtroom in The Hague on Monday and apologized for falling under the influence of "deviant" and "evil" people in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda.

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He said he has accepted the prosecution's call for a prison sentence of nine to 11 years, although the maximum sentence is 30 years and the court has yet to confirm the sentence.

"All the charges against me are accurate and correct," Mr. al-Mahdi told the International Criminal Court.

"I am really remorseful, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused," he said. "It is my hope that the years I will spend in prison will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me."

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Mr. al-Mahdi, a former member of the radical Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, asked the people of Timbuktu to forgive him. "I would like them to look at me as a son who has lost his way," he told the court.

"I was influenced by a group of deviant people from al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine. They influenced me and carried me in their evil wave, in actions that affected the whole population."

He also said he had a piece of advice for Muslims worldwide: "Do not get involved in the same acts I got involved in, because they won't lead to anything good for humanity."

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Related: In light of the Timbuktu conviction, a history of destruction of cultural sites

Mr. al-Mahdi is accused of orchestrating the destruction of nine ancient shrines and a mosque door, which were demolished with pickaxes and iron bars after the jihadis captured Timbuktu and the rest of northern Mali in 2012. The shrines contained the tombs of the city's greatest Muslim holy men and religious thinkers, revered for centuries as saints, but the extremists deemed them to be totems of idolatry.

The guilty plea could help to restore the battered image of the International Criminal Court, which has been widely criticized for its huge costs and its failure to prosecute anyone outside Africa.

If the court accepts the guilty plea, it will be just the fourth conviction obtained by the international court since it was created in 2002. It has spent more than $1.4-billion (U.S.) since its creation.

Many Africans have accused the court of racism for failing to prosecute cases outside Africa. The court, however, says it is investigating several cases in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Its work in Africa has often been thwarted by unco-operative governments, suspects who refuse to surrender and systematic attempts to threaten and bribe witnesses.

In the Timbuktu case, the court has been shown video clips of the destruction of the mausoleums, with Mr. al-Mahdi carrying an assault rifle and issuing justifications for the attacks. Prosecutors say he was the leader of Hisbah, a morality brigade that enforced harsh fundamentalist rules on the city, forcing women to wear veils and stay at home if they failed to obey the dress code.

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Timbuktu, a traditionally moderate Islamic city, was a leading centre of Islamic research and higher education from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was an affluent gold-trading city with dozens of schools and universities that attracted scholars from across the Muslim world. Its vast libraries held hundreds of thousands of ancient Arabic and African manuscripts.

The chief prosecutor of the international court, Fatou Bensouda, said Mr. al-Mahdi identified the sites to be destroyed, decided the sequence of their destruction, provided equipment for the assaults and gave the orders to the attackers.

"Deliberately leading an attack on historic monuments and buildings devoted to religion is a war crime," she said.

"These are serious crimes that must be brought to justice…. They wanted to destroy these monuments, simply wipe them off the map. It is a deep attack on the identity of a population, their memory and their future. This is a crime that leaves us all diminished."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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