On 1 March, the International Criminal Court held a Pre-Trial hearing in the case of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi. The charges relate to the deliberate targeting and attack of historic and religious monuments during the occupation of Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. This is the first time in international criminal law that an attack on cultural heritage is the main grounds for prosecution. March 24 the judges decided that the evidence presented against Mr. Al Mahdi at the pre-trial hearing is sufficient to allow the case to proceed. ‘The importance of this case is that it raises awareness on the international illegality of deliberately destroying cultural heritage and this is indeed an important development’, writes post-doctoral researcher Amy Strecker, who reports on the case for the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Global Heritage and Development.
By Amy Strecker
On 24 March 2016, the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed the war crime charges against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for the destruction of historical and religious monuments at Timbuktu (Mali). This means that the evidence presented against Mr. Al Mahdi at the pre-trial hearing is sufficient to allow the case to proceed.
Mr. Al Mahdi is accused of intentionally directing an attack on nine mausoleums and one mosque during the occupation of Timbuktu by armed forces in 2012. The monuments were regarded and indeed protected as a significant part of the cultural heritage of the city. Indeed, the monuments did not constitute military objectives but were targeted because of their religious and historical significance to the local population. According to oral testimony presented at the pre-trial hearing (1 March), the armed groups made it difficult for the inhabitants of Timbuktu to carry out their traditional practices and interaction with these sites. Other evidence presented included testimony by expert witnesses and local inhabitants, video footage, satellite imagery and UNESCO documentation.
The case is significant on a number of levels: not only is it the first time that the war crime of cultural heritage destruction has formed the basis of a case before the ICC, it is also interesting for its focus on the importance of cultural heritage beyond the value of the material elements, for the role these monuments played in the rites and practices of the local inhabitants. It is therefore as much about intangible heritage and the violation cultural rights (even if not explicitly-stated) as it is about the destruction of physical monuments themselves.
The ICC will assign the case to a trial chamber in due course. Watch this space for more updates as the case proceeds.