No one got punished for blowing up the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in 2001. No one has been sent to jail for blowing up the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria after IS captured it in May 2015.
But Ahmed al-Mahdi is going to jail for destroying the religious monuments of Timbuktu – and he even says he’s sorry.
Appearing before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague last Monday, the former junior civil servant in Mali’s department of education said: “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.” He caused a lot of damage.
Timbuktu is a remote desert outpost now, with fewer residents than the 25 000 students who thronged its famous Islamic university in its golden age in the 16th century. Its ancient mosques and monuments are of such historical value that they have earned Timbuktu (like Bamiyan and Palmyra) a Unesco designation as a World Heritage Site.
Timbuktu’s greatest treasure was its tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, which dealt with topics as diverse as literature, women’s rights, music, philosophy and good business practice.
When Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed into Timbuktu in 2012, the heroic librarian Abdel Kader Haidara saved 95% of the city’s manuscripts by smuggling them out to Bamako, Mali’s capital, by car and boat. But the mosques and the mausoleums could not be moved and Ahmed al-Mahdi was recruited to head the “morality police”. One of his jobs was smashing the ones that were “idolatrous”.
Al-Mahdi, born near Timbuktu, was already a follower of Wahhabism, an austere Islamic sect of Saudi Arabian origin that condemns ordinary people’s reverence for ancient mausoleums and religious shrines as idolatry. So, to protect people from sin, historic buildings, tombs, among others, must be destroyed.
He is charged with destroying nine mausoleums and part of one mosque, but he almost certainly vandalised many more.
Malian and French troops drove AQIM out of Timbuktu in 2013, and al-Mahdi was captured shortly afterward. As head of the morality police, he supervised the whipping of smokers, drinkers and “impure” women, the stoning of adulterers, and the execution of “apostates” – but the charge the ICC chose to bring against him was “destroying cultural heritage”.
This is a first for the ICC, the world’s permanent war crimes court. Its previous cases involved illegal violence against people. This case is about violence against things.
Even if they are things sacred to many people, some critics worry that expanding the category of war crimes in this way undermines the unique status of torture, murder and genocide
as crimes so terrible they require international action.
But making the act of deliberately “destroying cultural heritage” a crime is another, lesser step in the process of building a body of international human rights law that applies to everyone. Al-Mahdi just happened to come along at what was, for him, the wrong time.