Judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague found Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi guilty of directing the 2012 attacks on the UNESCO world heritage site in northern Mali.
Mahdi “supervised the destruction and gave instructions to the attackers”, presiding judge Raul Pangalangan told the tribunal.
“The chamber unanimously finds that Mr al-Mahdi is guilty of the crime of attacking protected sites as a war crime,” he added, saying the crime had “significant gravity”.
The court “unanimously sentences you to nine years of imprisonment,” Pangalangan added as Mahdi, dressed in a sober grey suit and blue-striped tie, listened intently.
The landmark verdict is the first to focus solely on cultural destruction as a war crime and the first arising out of the conflict in Mali, when jihadists swept into the country’s remote north in 2012.
Prosecutors will likely be satisfied having asked for a jail term of between nine and 11 years, which they said would recognise both the severity of the crime and the fact that Mahdi was the first person to plead guilty before the court.
Observers say they hope the sentence will act as a deterrent to those bent on razing the world’s cultural heritage, which UN chief Ban Ki-moon recently condemned for “tearing at the fabric of societies”.
In an unprecedented move, Mahdi, aged between 30 and 40, last month pleaded guilty to the single war crimes charge of “intentionally directing” attacks in 2012 on nine of Timbuktu’s mausoleums and the centuries-old door of the city’s Sidi Yahia mosque.
“Legend had it that this door had not been opened for 500 years and that its opening would lead to the last judgement,” the presiding judge said.
But while the court recognised the severity of the crimes targeting sites which “were dedicated to religion and historic monuments and were not military objectives,” the judges also gave Mahdi credit for his guilty plea, and for his “substantial cooperation” with the prosecution.
Pickaxes and bulldozers
The slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair had previously asked the pardon of his people when videos were shown of him and other Islamist extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pick-axes and bulldozers.
Founded between the fifth and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed “the city of 333 saints” and the “pearl of the desert” 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, it was however considered idolatrous by the militants who swept across Mali’s remote north in early 2012.
As the head of the so-called Hisbah or “Manners Brigade,” it was Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, who gave the orders to ransack the sites.
Apologising for his actions at the court, he said he had been overtaken by “evil spirits”, urging Muslims not to follow his example.
The court found that Mahdi, was a member of the Ansar Dine, one of the groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which seized the northern territory before being mostly chased out by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.
Even though the list of UNESCO world heritage sites appears to be growing, there is little hope that those behind attacks on monuments in Iraq and Syria will find themselves in the dock any time soon.
Neither country is a signatory to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, meaning that without a mandate from the UN Security Council an ICC investigation into such crimes is not yet possible.