Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi

Ahmad Al Mahdi makes his first appearance before the ICC. © ICC-CPI
Islamist rebel Ahmad al-Mahdi pled guilty at the ICC to intentionally directing attacks against historical monuments and buildings dedicated to religion in the UNESCO-protected city of Timbuktu, northern Mali. Sentenced to nine years' imprisonment
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An ICC arrest warrant was issued under seal for Islamist rebel Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi on 18 September 2015. He was arrested and transferred to ICC custody by the government of Niger on 26 September 2015, charged with intentionally directing attacks against historical monuments or buildings dedicated to religion in Timbuktu, northern Mali. Al-Mahdi pled guilty to the charge and on 27 September 2016 was convicted and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment, with time served to be deducted. This was the first such case to come before the ICC.
Background

Destruction of Timbuktu provokes outcry

Mali’s city of Timbuktu is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is heralded as the centre for Islamic culture and learning between the 13th and 17th centuries. The destruction of the city’s cultural heritage following the invasion of northern Mali by Islamist rebels in 2012 provoked an international outcry. Intentionally directing attacks against historical monuments or buildings dedicated to religion are war crimes under the ICC Rome Statute.

Cultural war crimes can be traced back through the body of law governing conduct during armed conflict: the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and its two protocols; and the 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

Islamist al-Mahdi arrested in Niger on ICC warrant

An ICC arrest warrant was issued under seal for suspected Islamist rebel Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi on 18 September 2015. He was arrested and transferred to ICC custody by the government of Niger on 26 September 2015. The ICC prosecutor alleged al-Mahdi worked closely with terrorist groups Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after they took control of Timbuktu in 2012 and imposed strict Sharia law over the city and its population. Al-Mahdi allegedly headed the 'Manners’ Brigade' enforcing the Islamic Court in Timbuktu.

As well as being the first such case to come before the ICC, this is also the first arising from the ICC Mali investigation, and the first time a suspected Islamic extremist appeared before the ICC.

Charges

First ICC cultural war crimes case

Al-Mahdi was charged with the war crime of having committed, facilitated or otherwise contributed – by himself or together with others – to attacks against nine mausoleums and one mosque that Ansar Dine has declared heretical under Sharia law. All such buildings are protected by virtue of Timbuktu's UNESCO World Heritage classification.

Pre-trial

In al-Mahdi’s first appearance before the ICC, Judge Tarfusser outlined measures to expedite proceedings. These measures were developed as best practices to be followed in pre-trial proceedings. These are now consolidated under the Chambers Practice Manual and are intended to contribute to the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the proceedings before the Court.

Intention to plead guilty

Al-Mahdi indicated his intention to plead guilty prior to the start of his ICC trial on 22 August 2016, the first such plea before the ICC. He formally pled guilty at his trial opening, with the prosecution and defense agreeing not to appeal any sentence between nine and eleven years.

Sentencing

On 27 September 2016, Trial Chamber VIII found al-Mahdi guilty of participating as a direct co-perpetrator in the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historic and religious buildings. The Court took into account five mitigating factors, including al-Mahdi’s guilty plea, his demonstrated remorse, his initial reluctance to commit the crime, good behaviour during his detention, and his cooperation with the Prosecution. He was sentenced to nine years imprisonment, with time spent in detention during and prior to trial to be deducted.

Challenges

Civil society calls for more justice in Mali

Civil society welcomed the al-Mahdi trial and verdict as an example of how attacks on religious and historical monuments can destroy the culture and identity of a population and constitute crimes under international law.

Members of civil society have also reiterated that hundreds of civilians were murdered, tortured, and raped during the 2012 conflict in Mali, and has called on the ICC to continue to investigate a broader range of crimes committed by all sides to the conflict.

Arguendo roundtable highlights cultural destruction

The American Bar Association’s International Criminal Court (ICC) Project and Stanford Law School Program in International and Comparative Law release an online roundtable, Arguendo, bringing together an eminent panel of experts from UNESCO, the Asia Society Policy Institute, the ICC, and Georgetown University as well as Jordan's Prince El Hassan bin Talal to discuss the significance of the ICC’s war crime charges of attacks on cultural property in Mali.

Victims

Eight victims organizations participated in the trial through a joint legal representative. The ICC case has highlighted the Court’s competence to deliver justice for different types of harms, including the loss of cultural identity. The case entered the victims' reparations stage following the trial judgement.