The International Criminal Court on Tuesday sentenced a Malian jihadist to nine years jail for razing Timbuktu’s fabled shrines, in a landmark judgement experts hope will help safeguard the world’s ancient monuments.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was convicted of a crime of "significant gravity", ICC judge Raul Pangalangan told the tribunal, adding the chamber "unanimously sentences you to nine years of imprisonment".
A three-judge bench began handing down its judgments at 0930 GMT against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, the first jihadist to stand trial at the tribunal in The Hague.
Mahdi "oversaw the attacks on all 10" shrines and mosques in the UNESCO world heritage site, presiding judge Raul Pangalangan told the tribunal based in The Hague, west Netherlands.
"The chamber unanimously finds that Mr al-Mahdi is guilty of the crime of attacking protected sites as a war crime," he added, saying the crime had "significant gravity".
The historic verdict is the first to focus solely on cultural destruction as a war crime and the first arising out of the conflict in Mali.
Prosecutors have asked for a jail term of between nine and 11 years, which they said would recognise both the severity of the crime and the fact that Mahdi was the first person to plead guilty before the court.
Observers say they hope the sentence will act as a deterrent to those bent on razing the world’s cultural heritage, which UN chief Ban Ki-moon recently condemned as "tearing at the fabric of societies".
In an unprecedented move, Mahdi, aged between 30 and 40, last month pleaded guilty to the single war crimes charge of "intentionally directing" attacks in 2012 on nine of Timbuktu’s mausoleums and the centuries-old door of the city’s Sidi Yahia mosque.
The slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair asked the pardon of his people as videos were shown of him and other Islamist extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pick-axes and bulldozers.
Founded between the fifth and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was however considered idolatrous by the jihadists who swept across Mali’s remote north in early 2012.
As the head of the so-called Hisbah or "Manners Brigade," it was Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, who gave the orders to ransack the sites.
Apologising for his actions at the court, he said he had been overtaken by "evil spirits", urging Muslims not to follow his example, and saying he wanted to seek the pardon of all Malians.
The court found that Mahdi, was a member of the Ansar Drine, one of the jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which seized the northern territory before being mostly chased out by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.
"The verdict is eagerly awaited," said Lassana Cisse, Mali’s national heritage director, adding that it must be a "punishment which sets an example".
Even though the list of UNESCO world heritage sites appears to be growing, there is little hope that those behind attacks on monuments in Iraq and Syria will find themselves in the dock any time soon.
Neither country is a signatory to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, meaning that without a mandate from the UN Security Council an ICC investigation into such crimes is not yet possible.