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Defendant Pleads Guilty in First Cultural Destruction Trial at The Hague

Anny Shaw reports in the Art Newspaper that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who was charged with war crimes for destroying nine mausoleums and damaging the fifteenth-century Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu, has pled guilty. This is the first trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for the destruction of cultural heritage. At a court hearing last September, al-Mahdi described himself as a graduate of the teachers’ institute in Timbuktu and a civil servant in Mali’s education department. Prosecutors say al-Mahdi additionally belonged to Ansar Dine, a group with links to al-Qaeda, and that he also led an anti-vice squad called Hesbah, which enforced Sharia law on behalf of the Islamic court of Timbuktu during conflicts in Mali in 2012 and 2013.

During their occupation of Timbuktu, militants went after medieval shrines and tombs of Sufi saints, as well as the aforementioned mosque, which was built in 1440 and contained the mausoleum of professor Sidi Yahya. The buildings, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site dubbed the “city of 333 saints,” were considered blasphemous by their attackers. Around four thousand ancient manuscripts were lost, burned, or stolen during this time as well. Over the past few years, though, UNESCO and the people of Timbuktu have managed to rebuild many of the mausoleums.

Prosecutors in this case will draw on new technology, which they hope will aid in future cultural-destruction trials as well. They worked with Situ Research, a New York–based design studio, to develop a new digital platform to present various types of visual evidence documenting the destruction of religious sites. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago and the Oak Foundation in Portland, the technology will allow court judges access to photographs and videos taken by local citizens and TV networks before, during, and after the mausoleums were taken down. Drawings of the sites will also be presented as evidence in the trial while satellite imagery will show the scale of the destruction.