War-Crime Plea for Leveled Timbuktu Shrines

      (CN) — The International Criminal Court achieved resounding success Monday in its first effort to prosecute the destruction of a cultural heritage as a war crime, as an Islamist fighter from Mali pleaded guilty to demolishing Sufi shrines that cemented Timbuktu’s reputation as the “City of 333 Saints.”
     Born roughly 62 miles west of that storied city in 1975, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi appeared before The Hague-based tribunal this morning in a dark-blue suit with a matching striped shirt and tie.
     The color scheme on Faqi’s Western wardrobe is fitting for a man of his cultural ancestry. Faqi belongs to the Tuareg people, a nomadic tribe of Berbers sometimes known as the “Blue Men of the Sahara” for the indigo pigment on their traditional robes and turbans.
     As civil war erupted in Northern Mali in early 2012, Faqi had been part of a band of Tuareg separatists who formed an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb called Ansar Dine.
     In his former post heading Ansar Dine’s anti-vice unit, known as the “Manners’ Brigade,” Faqi saw himself as a guardian of the city’s morality. This morning, however, Faqi described his former comrades as a “deviant group of people.” Faqi bemoaned the U.S.-designated terrorist group’s ability to “influence me and carry me through their evil wave.”
     As the rebels took hold of Timbuktu, the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO quickly pronounced the fabled West African trading city an endangered heritage site in June 2012, and the world watched in horror as the group demolished Sufi shrines days after this declaration.
     This morning, Faqi admitted to charges that he intentionally directed attacks against nine mausoleums and one mosque, among the tombs and shrines of 333 mystical Islamic saints venerated by locals there since the 13th century.
     “I would like to give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world not to get involved in the same acts that I got involved in because they are not going to lead to any good for humanity,” Faqi told the chamber, along with viewers of the tribunal’s roughly 10-minute feed.
     The case has been widely broadcast since the ICC’s prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declared the destruction of the holy site a war crime as the events unfolded.
     Bensouda, a lawyer from Gambia, had assumed office mere weeks before the cultural destruction, and launched her preliminary investigation at Mali’s request weeks later.
     With the tribunal’s spotty record holding dictators into account for genocide, rape and torture, some observers puzzled over the prosecution of a war crime involving a proverbial bricks-and-mortar victim, but art historians applauded the court’s signal that crimes against antiquities would be taken seriously.
     Erin Thompson, a professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College who specializes in art crime, anticipated that the case would fire a shot across the bow heard by members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
     “Up to now, the destruction and looting of cultural property has been seen as low-risk and without consequences,” Thompson said in an interview. “Now, we’ve shown that destruction will be treated as a serious crime and prosecuted. I hope to see the elaborate videos that IS produced, documenting their destruction of sites like Palmyra, playing again soon – in a courtroom.”
     Thompson noted that the road for this prosecution had been paved decades ago through the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
     “In that conflict, it was very obvious that the destruction of churches or mosques was a cultural genocide,” the professor said.
     In a scholarly article on that tribunal’s trailblazing work on protecting cultural property, the ICTY’s president Thomas Meron reflected upon the prosecution of the Republika Srpska’s former President Biljana Plavsic both for crimes against humanity and the destruction of several monuments. The trial chamber described one of the monuments at issue as a “pearl amongst the cultural heritage in this part of Europe.”
     Five years after the ICTY’s establishment, more than 100 nations signed the Rome Statute investing the ICC with jurisdiction to prosecute the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected.”
     Thompson, the John Jay professor, emphasized that the act of destroying cultural property comes with an implicit warning.
     “You destroy somebody’s religious institution, and they know you’re coming to them next,” she said.
     As the conflict in Syria lays waste to humans and heritage alike, Faqi’s case is often cited as a potential precedent for seeking justice against the Islamic State militants who laid waste to the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Thompson meanwhile applauded the ICC for debuting its art-crime prosecutions by protecting Islamic rather than Western cultural heritage.
     “These shrines were crucial to the religious life of the community,” she stressed. “These were everyday portions of the everyday residents’ religious life. They’re so important that they’ve already been reconstructed.”
     By some estimates, Timbuktu holds as many as 700,000 manuscripts dating back 600 years.
     When Unesco announced its reconstruction project two years ago, the U.N. cultural body reported that more than 4,000 of these documents held in the Ahmed Baba Institute were lost in the conflict.
     There are no shortage of other conflict zones over which this case may cast a large shadow.
     “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is an important part of current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Mali, Tunisia, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and many parts of Central America,” Thompson said. “It is crucial to come up with new, powerful ways to fight these destructions. The precedent set today is incredibly important for this fight.”
     Today’s guilty plea does not end proceedings against Faqi, which are expected to last two or three days longer. The defense will have the opportunity to present remarks and witness statements before the tribunal makes a formal finding of guilt or innocence, followed by a possible sentencing.
     Faqi, who faces up to 30 years in prison, said he is poised for any outcome, and he quoted Quranic scripture about self-reckoning.
     “All ye who believe, stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your next of kin,” Faqi intoned, in a preface to today’s guilty plea.
     Faqi also expressed “hope that my time in prison will be a source of purging the evil spirits that have taken over me.”
     Mali is among the 124 states that have both signed an enacted the Rome Statute. The list of the 31 signatories that have not ratified the treaty, which includes United States, Russia, Syria, could complicate any effort for the ICC to investigate ISIL’s destruction of Palmyra.
     Photo 1: Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi pleaded guilty Monday at the opening of his International Criminal Court trial in The Hague, Netherlands.
     Photo 2: Presiding Raul Pangalangan enters the courtroom Monday along with Judges Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua and Judge Bertram Schmitt for the opening of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi’s trial at The Hague.

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