‘Islamic militant’ becomes first person ever charged with destruction of heritage sites

The self-proclaimed Ansar Dine member is accused of intentionally attacking culturally important monuments in Timbuktu

Matilda Battersby
Thursday 01 October 2015 10:38 BST
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Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1, 2012
Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1, 2012

The first person ever to be charged in relation to the destruction of protected cultural heritage sites has appeared in court in the Hague.

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, also known as “Abou Tourab”, appeared at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands yesterday.

He stands accused of “intentionally directing attacks” in 2012 on ten religious and historic monuments in the Unesco World Heritage city of Timbuktu in Mali.

The alleged Islamic militant is the first person to be charged with war crimes related to the destruction of cultural heritage under the Rome Statute since it came into effect in 2002.

These depraved acts are an assault on the heritage of the Iraqi and Syrian people 

&#13; <p>John Kerry speaking about Isis attacks on heritage sites</p>&#13;

The self-proclaimed member of the Ansar Dine terrorist organisation is alleged to have “played a predominant and active role” during the group’s occupation of Timbuktu in 2012.

The ICC says he is accused of “the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments” and a “callous assault on the dignity and identity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historic roots.”

A warrant was issued for his arrest and he was extradited by Niger and turned over to the custody of the ICC on Saturday 27 September.

On Wednesday 30 September he appeared in court where he was presented with charges but was not required to enter a plea.

The Tomb of Askia in Gao which is believed to be the burial place of Askia Mohammad I, one of the Songhai Empire's most prolific emperors, in Timbuktu

In January there will be a hearing to decide whether there is strong enough evidence for a trial.

“This is the first time my office has brought such charges against a suspect in proceedings before this court,” Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, said.

“We will continue to do our part to highlight the severity of such war crimes with the hopes that such efforts will deter the commission of similar crimes in the future.”

The prosecutor called the charges a “first significant step” which she is confident the ICC can build on in the face of increasing destruction of heritage sites since the rise of terrorist organisations such as Ansar Dine and Isis.

Isis has set out to destroy buildings of historic importance in Iraq and Syria since the group took control of territories in both nations last year.

In August the group attempted to blow up the Temple of Baal in Palymra and has also destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin. In March Isis obliterated the important Iraqi sites of Hatra and Nimrud, before razing Khorsabad, an ancient Assyrian capital, also in Iraq.

Many of the ancient sites date back to pre-Islamic religions and their destruction is believed to be motivated by a wish to destroy cultural roots not representative of Islam.

Following the destruction of Hatra and Nimrud US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement which said: “These depraved acts are an assault on the heritage of the Iraqi and Syrian people by an organisation with a bankrupt and toxic ideology.”

Terrorists groups are also believed to be looting and selling antiquities. Last night the US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a reward of $5 million which could lead to information stopping the sale or trade of antiquities or oil that would benefit Isis.

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