Africa

Muslim radical convicted in destruction of historic Timbuktu mausoleums

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi.  (Bas Czerwinski POOL via AP)

An international court on Tuesday found a Muslim radical guilty of committing a war crime by overseeing the destruction of historic mausoleums in the Malian desert city of Timbuktu, and sentenced him to nine years in prison.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a former teacher, had pleaded guilty and expressed remorse for his role in overseeing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door by pickax-wielding rebels in June and July of 2012.

His trial, which opened Aug. 22, was a landmark for the International Criminal Court, which has struggled to bring suspects to justice since its establishment in 2002. It was the tribunal's first conviction for destruction of religious buildings or historic monuments, and the first guilty verdict delivered against a Muslim extremist.

Al-Qaida-linked rebels occupied the fabled Saharan city of Timbuktu in 2012 and enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included destruction of the historic mud-brick tombs they considered idolatrous. Al Mahdi was leader of one of the "morality brigades" set up by Timbuktu's new rulers.

ICC prosecutors said Al Mahdi was a member of Ansar Eddine, an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida that held power in northern Mali in 2012. The militants were driven out after nearly a year by French forces, which arrested Al Mahdi in 2014 in neighboring Niger.

Clad in a gray suit and striped purple tie, the defendant said nothing after the verdict and sentencing. Earlier in the trial, Al Mahdi urged Muslims around the world not to commit acts similar to those he had admitted.

"They are not going to lead to any good for humanity," he said.

Al Mahdi had faced a maximum sentence of 30 years' imprisonment for destruction of the World Heritage-listed sites. But presiding judge Raul Pangalangan said numerous factors argued for a lesser prison term, including Al Mahdi's initial reluctance to raze the historic buildings and what the judge called his apparently sincere admission of guilt.