A first: Man faces war crimes charges for destroying Timbuktu monuments

Story highlights

  • Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was a member of al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine in Mali
  • Ansar Dine declared it would establish an Islamist state and enforce strict sharia

(CNN)For the first time, the International Criminal Court is trying someone on war crime charges for destroying a cultural monument.

The court in The Hague, which usually goes after individuals who violate humanitarian law during armed conflicts, is putting Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi on trial.
    Al-Mahdi, also known as "Abou Tourab," is said to be a member of the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine in Mali. He allegedly directed the ransacking of the ancient North African city of Timbuktu in 2012. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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    No cultural coexistence

    Like ISIS in the Middle East, Ansar Dine in the north of Mali declared it would establish an Islamist state and enforce strict sharia. And like ISIS, it had little room for cultural or religious coexistence. This included ancient historic monuments and religious shrines.
    So, the group turned some into rubble, including the tombs of historic religious figures. It also went after institutions housing documents from the Middle Ages in Timbuktu, which was founded in the 5th century.
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    In 2013, France sent in troops to reign in the rebels. A 12,600-strong United Nations peacekeeping force followed.
    Mali and neighboring Niger cooperated to capture al-Mahdi and hand him over to the ICC.

    Serious crime

    On Saturday, he was brought to The Hague, Netherlands, for trial.
    "This is the first such case and it breaks new ground for the protection of humanity's shared cultural heritage and values," said UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova. "The cultural heritage of Mali belongs to all humanity. It is vital that the criminals be brought to justice."
    UNESCO has been working with the Mali government on the reconstruction of the destroyed monuments.
    "Such attacks affect humanity as a whole. We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage," said ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.