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International Criminal Court brings a cultural vandal to justice

Four years ago, 16 holy tombs in Timbuktu, dating back to the 14th century, were demolished in an attack by Islamic militants. In the first-ever war crimes trial for cultural destruction, one of the men involved admitted his guilt and voiced regret at the International Criminal Court. Jeffrey Brown talks with DePaul University’s Patty Gerstenblith for more on the challenges of prosecuting these crimes.

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    It's a first for the International Criminal Court at The Hague, a trial dealing with the destruction of cultural heritage..

    It's over the deliberate wrecking in 2012 of historic earthen buildings and religious shrines in the West African nation of Mali.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story. It's part of our ongoing series Culture at Risk.


    Sixty holy tombs dating back to the 14th century, all reduced to rubble in a wave of violence unleashed on Timbuktu by Islamist militants four years ago.

    Today, one of those responsible stood in front of the International Criminal Court and admitted his guilt.

    AHMAD AL-FAQI AL-MAHDI, Former Islamist militant (through translator): I regret all the damage that my actions have caused. I regret what I have caused to my family, my community in Timbuktu, what I have caused my home nation, Mali.


    Prosecutors say Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi directed the destruction of nine mausoleums and damage to a mosque. He'd been recruited to lead a vice squad by a group of Islamist rebels, affiliated with al-Qaida, who seized control of Northern Mali in 2012.

  • AHMAD AL-FAQI AL-MAHDI (through translator):

    I was influenced by a group of deviant people from al-Qaida, and they were able to influence me, to carry me in their evil wave, through actions that affected the whole population.


    The rebels were eventually driven out by French troops in 2013. The heaps of rubble they left behind have since mostly been rebuilt with help from UNESCO.

    In recent years, cultural relics across Northern Africa and the Mideast have been targeted by militant groups, most dramatically by the Islamic State at sites including the ancient cities of Palmyra, Syria, and Nimrud in Iraq. Unlike Mali, those countries are not subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC.

    Mahdi, who, in the plea bargain faces 11 years in prison, today called for an end to such acts.

  • AHMAD AL-FAQI AL-MAHDI (through translator):

    I would like to give a piece of advice to Muslims all over the world, not to get involved in the same acts I got involved in, because they are not going to lead to any good to humanity.


    Human rights groups say Mahdi and others also committed crimes against the local community, including rape and sexual slavery. The ICC says further charges may follow.

    And for more on this case and its broader implications, we're joined by Patty Gerstenblith. She's a professor of law at DePaul University and head of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law.

    Welcome to you.

    First thing I want to ask is, how significant is this case as a war crime prosecution?

  • PATTY GERSTENBLITH, DePaul University:

    Yes, it is very significant.

    It's the first case that we have on an international level where somebody was prosecuted only for the crime of destruction of cultural heritage. We have other examples of prosecutions during the World War II and the Balkan conflict, but in all those cases, the defendants had committed a variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity, things like mass killings of civilians, rapes, things like that.

    So, this is the first case we have where the defendant was charged only with destruction of cultural heritage. And I believe it's significant because it sends a message that the international community will take these kinds of crimes, these kind of destructions seriously.


    Why has it taken so long, or why is it so hard to bring these kind of cases? Is it the lack of the law or the lack of the will to bring these cases?


    I would say it's a variety.

    The laws, until this point, have been based — or the prosecutions have been based on special criminal tribunals that were set up, such as the Nuremberg tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia following the Balkan conflict.

    And, as I said, in those cases, there were many, many things, horrible things that were done, of which cultural property destruction was just one. And, unfortunately, the international community didn't always regard the cultural heritage destruction as necessarily the most significant of the different kinds of crimes that were committed.

    We now have the structure of the International Criminal Court established by the Rome Statute. And that's where this particular prosecution was brought. There is always the problem that different countries have ratified different international conventions.

    And so you can only bring a prosecution when a country has ratified the appropriate instrument. In this case, Mali is a member of the International Criminal Court. It has ratified the Rome Statute, which made this feasible under this particular legislation.

    This perhaps at this point was brought as a sole charge, sole crime, because of what we're witnessing going on, particularly in the Middle East, where we have the Islamic State carrying out large-scale destruction of cultural and religious sites.

    This has not been seen on this kind of a level with this much publicity in a long time, and certainly not things that we have seen in real time happening. And the world has stood by and seen this happen. And now we have finally been able to send a message that these kinds of destructions will be taken seriously by the international community.


    So, when you look at this specific Timbuktu case, though, can you say why it was successful? Are there particulars there? Before we use it to see how it might look to other cases, what happened there?


    Well, I think one of the most important things that made this case feasible, first of all, the law was in place, as I mentioned, the international law.

    Secondly, it happened that Mr. Al Mahdi was apprehended in a different country, but he was then turned over to the International Criminal Court.

    But I think the most important thing from a straight factual or evidentiary perspective is that there were films that were made, videos that were made of him destroying and directing the destruction, and, in fact, bragging about his role in destroying these sites, because, remember that, in a lot of these cases, it's — when a case is brought sometimes years after something has been done, proving exactly who did what becomes difficult.

    So we can have documentation that a site was destroyed. We can say, oh, this clearly violated international law, but proving exactly who and under what circumstances did it, proving the intentionality, and then proving the identity of the person who carried it out.

    So, for example, in the Balkan cases, the cases of destruction in Bosnia and in Croatia, it was often difficult to determine exactly who was responsible, who gave the order, who carried it out. And was it intentional? And also I guess another important aspect is that there was no armed conflict going on at the time that the shrines in Timbuktu were destroyed.

    In most cases, destruction of cultural heritage can be excused to what's called military necessity. This was an example in Timbuktu where there was clearly no military necessity for carrying out the destruction.


    You have mentioned — and, of course, we have reported on these dramatic cases in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere — the widespread scale of them now.

    Can you see this case in Timbuktu as a real precedent that might have an impact?


    I certainly think it is a precedent.

    It's a very good precedent. Whether it will have an impact is always difficult to tell, because, presumably, the Islamic State members who are carrying out the most egregious of the destruction, maybe they're not worried about whether some day they will be brought before a criminal tribunal.

    It will be difficult to tell exactly who ordered the destruction. I also think that there is a message that other destructions, particularly in Syria, for example, being carried out by the Assad regime, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, perhaps negligently or an extreme form of negligence.

    So, I hope the message is going not only to the obvious examples of the Islamic State, but also to other governments, to other individuals who also are carrying out or are responsible for this kind of heritage destruction.


    Patty Gerstenblith, thank you very much.


    Sure. Thank you, Jeff.

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