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What It’s Like to Get Punished as a War Criminal for Destroying Ancient Monuments

International law holds that demolishing historical sites is a war crime, and one of the first prosecutions just rolled in.

By Francie Diep


Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi arrives at the International Criminal Court on September 27, 2016. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Criminal Court has sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of the jihadist Ansar Dine group, to nine years in prison for destroying Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. The shrines dated to the 16th and 17th centuries, when Timbuktu was an important center from which Islamic culture spread through North Africa. This week’s sentencing marks the first time the ICC has prosecuted the damage of historical artifacts as a war crime.

In recent years, radical Islamic groups have dynamited and bulldozed ancient monuments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In 2001, the Taliban famously blew up 1,700-year-old Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, ISIS exploded temples and a monumental arch in Palmyra, Syria, and shot up numerous other artifacts that drew less international attention. Meanwhile, world leaders have increasingly recognized that the destruction of important historical sites is a crime against humanity. As University of Oxford archaeologist Emma Cunliffetold Pacific Standard in April:

The Rome Statute, which is the legal framework that governs the International Criminal Court, has a clause that does specifically prohibit damage to cultural property. The director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has said that she feels that some of [the destruction in Syria] certainly would be considered a war crime. There’s also been some new research by the United Nations’ Office of Human Rights High Commission looking at how the destruction of cultural heritage is a violation of international human rights law.

There’s quite a strong body of evidence about the ways in which cultural heritage is linked to ethnic cleansing, for example.

Cultural heritage and people are often killed together.

The people and artifacts of Timbuktu were no different. “Every resident can tell stories of violence experienced or witnessed” after Ansar Dine took control in 2012, the BBC reports.

With the new ICC conviction, it appears all that thinking and law-making is finally having real-life effects. The prosecution of al-Mahdi, who was the head of Ansar Dine’s morality enforcement, could serve as a template for future cases against those who demolished artifacts in Palmyra and elsewhere, the BBC reports.

The Timbuktu shrines were deemed to violate Islamic legal codes, the New York Times reports. They represented a form of Islam different from that of Ansar Dine, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, per the BBC.

The destruction of cultural heritage can carry a prison term of up to 30 years, but, according to the Times, a judge gave al-Mahdi a shorter sentence because he admitted guilt, cooperated with prosecutors, and showed remorse.