Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was an enthusiastic member of a radical Islamic occupying force that systematically destroyed most of Timbuktu's World Heritage-listed mausoleums in 2012, prosecutors alleged Tuesday at an International Criminal Court hearing.
Al Mahdi is the first suspect to face an ICC charge of deliberately attacking religious or historical monuments, in a case the court's chief prosecutor likened to the destruction last year by Islamic State extremists of historic ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
The case involves "the destruction of irreplaceable historical monuments" and a "callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religion and historical roots," Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges at a hearing to establish whether evidence is strong enough to put Al Mahdi on trial.
Bensouda said Al Mahdi, also known as Abou Tourab, helped organize the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque's door in 2012. All but one of the buildings was on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, she said.
Al Mahdi, dressed in a white robe, stood briefly to say he understood the case against him. He wasn't required to enter a plea.
Prosecutors allege he was a member of Ansar Dine, an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida that ruled across northern Mali in 2012. The militants were driven out after nearly a year by a French military intervention. French forces arrested Al Mahdi in October 2014 in Niger and transferred him to ICC custody nearly a year later.
Al Mahdi was a Timbuktu-based expert on Islamic law who was recruited by Ansar Dine to lead a group that enforced the radicals' strict interpretation of Islam on the occupied town's inhabitants, prosecutors say. Judges were shown a video clip of him, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, reading an Islamic court's sentence to the public.
The radicals destroyed 14 of Timbuktu's 16 mausoleums, one-room structures that house the tombs of the city's great thinkers, calling them totems of idolatry. The mausoleums have since been restored.