Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi will be the first jihadist to appear before the tribunal in The Hague, and the first person to face a main war crimes charge for an attack on a global historic and cultural monument.
A member of an Islamic court set up by the jihadists to enforce strict sharia law, Faqi is said to have jointly ordered or carried out the destruction of nine mausoleums and Timbuktu’s famous Sidi Yahia mosque dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
ICC prosecutors say he was a leader of Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg group, which held sway over Mali’s northern desert together with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and a third local group from early 2012 until being routed in a French-led intervention in January 2013.
Faqi will also be the first person to appear at the ICC on charges arising out of the violence which rocked the western African nation of Mali, where stretches of the remote north still remain out of government control.
“The people of Mali deserve justice for the attacks against their cities, their beliefs and their communities,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said at the time of Faqi’s arrest in Niger and transfer to the ICC in September 2015.
The charges he was facing were for “the most serious crimes,” she said.
They concerned “the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments” as well as “a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots.”
Founded between the 11th and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu was dubbed “the city of 333 saints” and added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1988.
Despite having been a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was considered idolatrous by the jihadists.
During the two-day hearing, prosecutors will be seeking to persuade a three-judge panel that they have enough evidence to put Faqi on trial.
Call to broaden charges
Although this is not the first case in which someone has faced charges of destroying buildings, “this is the first time the war crime of attacking religious and historic monuments constitutes the main charge against an individual facing trial at the ICC,” said Jonathan Birchall, a spokesman for the NGO Open Society
A trial will “set a precedent for trying individuals for this crime at a time when attacks on historic and cultural monuments as well as other cultural crimes have gained prevalence and attention in Syria and elsewhere,” he said.
Faqi made his first and so far only public appearance before the court in September, where he said he was aged about 40.
He added that he wished to be addressed in Arabic.
“My name is Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, I am from the Al-Ansar Touareg tribe,” he said, adding he had been a civil servant in education in the Malian government in 2011.
Despite the significance of the case, some rights groups have called for the charges against him to be broadened notably to include rape and sexual slavery.
“Given his role as in the Islamic police and the ‘manners (anti-vice) squad’ in Timbuktu he should face charges for other international crimes, such as sexual violence,” said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
UNESCO has meanwhile restored the 14 mausoleums that were destroyed in Timbuktu, which is about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the capital, Bamako.