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Malian jihadist ‘lost way’ in Timbuktu attacks, court told

Alleged Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty to a single charge of cultural destruction at the International Criminal Court in The Hague © ANP/AFP/File / Patrick Post

The Hague, Netherlands, Aug 24 – A Malian jihadist who admitted to razing ancient tombs in the fabled city of Timbuktu is “an honest man” who briefly took the wrong path in life, his lawyer pleaded Wednesday, as prosecutors urged a jail term of up to 11 years.

“For just over three months he lost his way,” Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi’s attorney said at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

“He wanted to give advice to apply Sharia (Islamic) law, which was a terrible mistake that led to his guilt,” lawyer Jean-Louis Gilissen told judges.

He is “an honest man,” Gilissen said.

Mahdi admitted at the start of his trial Monday to ransacking some of the west African city’s most historic mausoleums during a two-week wave of destruction in 2012.

He is the first Islamic extremist charged by the ICC and the first charged with crimes arising out of the conflict in Mali.

Sentencing will be handed down on September 27.

– Global outrage –

The wanton destruction by jihadists, who considered the mausoleums idolatrous, triggered a global outcry.

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The mausoleums of Timbuktu © AFP / Alain BOMMENEL, Jean-Michel CORNU

But Mahdi’s lawyers said Wednesday he acted out of the belief that what he was doing was right, based on an interpretation of Sharia law.

Mahdi, who is aged about 40, had lived in Timbuktu for 11 years before armed groups arrived.

His defence described him as “a generous man with an extremely sociable character” who worked for reconciliation between Muslim groups, founded an NGO and facilitated dialogue between white and black Tuaregs.

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) — picked out Mahdi to head its “Hisbah” or “Manners” brigade, his lawyers said.

Mahdi “was not a decision-maker, but headed those who carried out orders,” the defence said.

ICC prosecutors under a deal made with the defence asked for a sentence of between nine to 11 years.

The sentence should serve as an “effective deterrent” that plundering the world’s heritage would not go unpunished, they added.

Islamist militants destroy an ancient shrine in Timbuktu in July 2012 © AFP/File

The sentence should “fully reflect his guilt, serve as an effective deterrent and give justice to the victims,” prosecutor Gilles Dutertre urged.

“It cannot be tolerated that world heritage can be deliberately destroyed, with disdain for the importance that it has to other people.”

– Ancient myth destroyed –

A former teacher and Islamic scholar, Mahdi admitted to the sole war crimes charge of “intentionally directing attacks” against nine of Timbuktu’s famous mausoleums as well as the ancient door of the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.

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Mahdi on Monday begged for “forgiveness” for his role in the destruction that shocked the world as he urged other Muslims not to follow such “evil” ways.

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 Timbuktu, also known as the “Pearl of the Desert”, has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Earlier speaking on behalf of victims, lawyer Mayombo Kassongo told the judges that “the mausoleums of Timbuktu is a symbol of the identity of the people.”

“For Africa it’s like the Eiffel Tower in France or the pyramids of Egypt.”

“When a symbol is attacked and destroyed… it is something that denies Timbuktu of its golden age and deprives it of its myth. Its victims deserve to be compensated,” he said.


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