In one of the groundbreaking war crime cases before the International Criminal Court a member of Ansar Eddine, an extremist group linked to Al-Qaeda, has pleaded guilty to the destruction of cultural heritages. Mr Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is charged with ‘intentionally directing attacks’ against nine ancient shrines and a mosque in Mali after the extremist group captured the Malian city of Timbuktu and other parts of Mali in 2012. The case is a result of a self-referral made in July 2012 by the Malian government, which ratified the ICC Statute in 2000.
After the Court issued an arrest warrant on 18 September 2015, al-Mahdi was arrested and surrendered to the Court through the cooperation of African States, namely Niger and Mali. On 24 March 2016, the Pre-Trial Chamber I of the Court confirmed the war crime charge and found the evidence presented by the prosecutor sufficient to establish substantial ground to believe that al-Mahdi is criminally responsible for the alleged crimes.
The al-Mahdi case has given rise to new precedents. It is for the first time that destruction of historical and religious monuments constituted a single war crime charge against an accused before the ICC. Furthermore, it is also the first charge against an Islamic extremist, and a first for any accused of the Court to plead guilty. Standing before the Court, on 22 August 2016, al-Mahdi admitted all charges against him as ‘accurate and correct’ and asked forgiveness from the people of Timbuktu. ‘I am really remorseful, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused,’ he stated.
The availability of vast and compelling evidence against al-Mahdi and his admission of guilt makes the trial the most expeditious and economically efficient trial before the Court. Considering that the al-Mahdi case is the first case from the situation in Mali, al-Mahdi’s key position in Ansar Eddine and his admission of guilt, he could also be a useful resource regarding the prosecution of other crimes allegedly committed in Mali.
This seems even more important since the destruction of cultural heritages has now become a core feature of modern warfare as witnessed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In light of this trend, the Court has also made a strong statement on the seriousness of war crimes against cultural heritages. Although prosecution and conviction of al-Mahdi may not totally deter the waves of deliberate destructions of historical and religious monuments, the trial still sets a historical precedent and forces other perpetrators to make some value judgment.
More significantly, the prosecution of al-Mahdi has pointed the international community to a better way of dealing with extremists. As former prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo stated, the fight against terrorism would be ‘more effective and humane’ if we deal with terrorists as criminals than as enemies.
The Court is expected to render its judgment and sentence on the al-Mahdi case on 27 September 2016.
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