A Malian jihadi asked for forgiveness as he pleaded guilty Monday to the 2012 attacks on the fabled city of Timbuktu, and urged Muslims not to follow such “evil” ways at his unprecedented war crimes trial.
“Your honour, regrettably I have to say that what I heard so far is accurate and reflects the events. I plead guilty,” Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi said as his trial opened at the International Criminal Court, where he admitted a sole war crimes charge of cultural destruction.
Armed with videos, graphics and 360 degree landscapes, ICC prosecutors showed images of the destruction of the centuries-old sites in the west African city.
Aged about 40, Mahdi is the first person ever to confess his crimes at the ICC, is also the first Islamic extremist to appear before the tribunal and the first charged with crimes arising out of the conflict in Mali.
The razing of the ancient shrines by jihadis triggered global outcry, and archaeologists hope the trial will send a stern warning that such plundering of our common heritage will not go unpunished.
Mahdi is accused of “intentionally directing attacks” against nine of Timbuktu’s famous mausoleums as well as the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.
Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu’s very name evokes centuries of history and has been dubbed “the city of 333 saints” for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries and a designated UNESCO world heritage site, Timbuktu was however condemned as idolatrous by the jihadis.
Prosecutors on Monday showed shocking images of jihadis hacking away at centuries-old tombs, including video of Mahdi taking a pick-axe to on shrine and later justifying the attacks to cameras.
In one video, Mahdi and others are seen ripping open the door of the Sidi Yahia mosque, which had been kept closed for hundreds of years.
ICC prosecutors allege Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg movement that in 2012 took control of Timbuktu some 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Bamako, along with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Mahdi, who was then head of the “Hisbah” or the “Manners Brigade” said he regretted the damage he had caused and was “really sorry”.
“I would like to seek the pardon of all the whole people of Timbuktu,” he said.
Mahdi has been described as a quiet Koranic scholar who turned ruthless jihadi enforcer, fiercely imposing the strictest interpretation of Sharia law.
But vowing he would never carry out such actions again, he sought to distance himself from the jihadis describing their acts as “evil.”
“It is also my hope that the years I will spend in prison will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me,” he told the court, dressed in a western suit with a blue-and-white striped tie, instead of his earlier white collarless shirt.
Amid scenes of similar destruction in Iraq and Syria, the ICC prosecutors have said the case is about much than just stones and walls.
Such “deliberate attacks on cultural property have become actual weapons of war,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court.
“It was a period in time that was one of destructive rage. The heritage of mankind was ransacked,” she said.
The jihadis “wanted to destroy these monuments and simply wipe them off the map,” she said, urging the court “to stand firm in our resolve to end impunity for such serious crimes.”
The judgement will follow later, but it was revealed the defence and prosecution have struck a deal under which Mahdi would not appeal a jail term of between nine to 11 years.
The judges warned however the court is not bound by the deal, and he could face up to 30 years imprisonment.