Islamic Extremist Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison Over Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The landmark case has come to a close.

Malian jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi arrives at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on September 27, 2016. Photo courtesy BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP/Getty Images.

In a unprecedented case, judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague ordered Islamic extremist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi—who has been linked to Al Qaeda—to nine years in prison over the smashing of Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. It is the first prosecution for the destruction of a cultural heritage site as a war crime.

The centuries-old Sufi shrines, built in honor of the Sufi men and scholars over whose tombs they stood, were destroyed in the summer of 2012 under Mahdi’s guidance. Mahdi’s involvement in the dismantling of a 15th century mosque in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Timbuktu, during the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali in 2012. All have since been rebuilt.

Mahdi has expressed regret for his actions, explaining in a statement that he had been influenced by “a group of deviant people of Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine,” and “taken over by evil spirits.” This, however, was not enough to provoke pity from Judge Pangalangan, and while he acknowledged that Mahdi had not caused physical injury to any person, he recognized the symbolic and religious value of the shrines, emphasizing that they were “among the most cherished buildings of the city.”

The sentencing is substantially light considering Mahdi was facing up to 30 years. According to the New York Times, presiding Judge Pangalangan explained that he took note of four factors when weighing the decision: Mahdi’s admission of guilt, his cooperation with prosecutors, his demonstration of remorse, and the fact that he apparently “initially advised against the demolition.”

The landmark case has drawn international attention due to the ICC’s decision to try Mahdi for a crime against humanity, demonstrating a growing concern and regard for cultural heritage sites.

In that same vein, the New York Times reports that French President François Hollande announced the establishment of a $100 million public-private partnership with the United Arab Emirates, created with the goal of “protecting endangered cultural sites or restoring ones that have been damaged.”

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