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Malian jihadist accused of war crimes for Timbuktu attack
This file photo taken on September 30, 2015 shows alleged Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist leader Ahmad Faqi Al Mahdi looking on in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC), in The Hague. An unprecedented war crimes case brought against a Malian jihadist for allegedly destroying centuries-old shrines at the world heritage site of Timbuktu opens at the International Criminal Court on March 1, 2016. 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. ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / POOL ANP / AFP.

By: Jo Biddle and Jan Hennop

THE HAGUE (AFP).- Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday accused a Malian jihadist of a war crime by unleashing "a callous assault" on the centuries-old world heritage site of Timbuktu.

"We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage," said chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda as she unveiled a single charge of war crimes against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi.

"Humanity's collective consciousness was shocked by the destruction of these sites. Such an attack must not go unpunished," she told the Hague-based tribunal, set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes.

Faqi's lawyers defended their client as "an intelligent, reasonable and educated man" who had sought to do good in response to a "divine message."

Global outcry
Faqi, aged about 40, is the first jihadist to appear before the ICC and the first person to face a war crimes charge for an attack on a global historic and cultural monument.

Prosecution for the 2012 attack on the ancient Malian shrines comes amid a global outcry over the razing by the so-called Islamic State group of sites in Iraq and Syria that bear testament to the world's collective history.

Prosecutors are seeking to persuade the three judges that there is enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

A member of an Islamic court set up by the Malian 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.

Prosecutors alleged the jihadists set upon the shrines with pick-axes and iron bars, as well as vehicles, in what Bensouda said was a "callous assault on the dignity of an entire population and their cultural identity."

Founded between the 11th and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu, located about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Mali's capital Bamako, has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "Pearl of the Desert."

It was 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 is considered idolatrous by the jihadists.

ICC prosecutors say Faqi 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.

'Contempt for history'
Dressed in a simple collarless white robe and his mass of curly black hair held back by headphones, Faqi listened intently, occasionally raising an eyebrow behind his rimless glasses, as Bensouda accused him and his co-perpetrators of showing "their contempt" for the earthen shrines.

"I've understood the charge well," Faqi told presiding judge Joyce Aluoch, speaking in Arabic.

His lawyer Jean-Louis Gilissen towards his client "wanted to make a contribution to what he thought and understood to be the divine message (by) doing what is right and seeking the means of good over evil to prevail."

His client "never meant to attack the contents of the mausoleums, but what was built on top of them," Gilissen told the judges.   

Faqi is also 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.

Faqi was arrested in Niger and transferred to the ICC in September 2015.

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," said Jonathan Birchall, a spokesman for the NGO Open Society.

Some rights groups however have called for the charges against Faqi to be widened to include rape and sexual slavery.

UNESCO has meanwhile restored the 14 mausoleums that were destroyed.

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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