An Islamist extremist has pleaded guilty at the international criminal court to the destruction of religious monuments in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012.
As his historic ICC trial started in The Hague on Monday, Ahmad al-Mahdi told judges he was entering the guilty plea “with deep regret and great pain” and advised Muslims around the world not to commit similar acts, saying “they are not going to lead to any good for humanity”.
Mahdi led a group of radicals who destroyed 14 of Timbuktu’s 16 mausoleums in 2012 because they considered them to be totems of idolatry. The one-room structures which housed the tombs of the city’s great thinkers were on the Unesco world heritage list.
The trial is the first at the ICC to cite destroying cultural artefacts as a war crime, and Mahdi is the first ICC defendant accused of war crimes to enter a guilty plea.
In 2012, Tuareg rebels attacked Timbuktu, backed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and armed with weapons from Libya. They enforced sharia law, banning music, which is central to Malian culture, forcing women to wear the burqa and preventing girls from attending school.
Mahdi, who is from a village 62 miles (100km) from Timbuktu, was accused of having joined the jihadis, who were trying to hire local people to build their credibility, and leading the vice squad. He was handed over by Niger’s government after the ICC issued an arrest warrant.
His trial is scheduled to last a week, with prosecutors presenting judges with evidence of the crimes and his defence lawyer also planning a presentation. Judges will issue a formal verdict and pass sentence at a later hearing.
Mahdi faces a maximum sentence of 30 years imprisonment, but prosecutors say they will seek a sentence of nine to 11 years. He told the three-judge panel he hopes his time in prison “will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me”.