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Militant Who Destroyed Mali Cultural Sites Pleads Guilty To War Crimes

Ahmad Faqi al-Mahdi in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in the Hague last September. Mahdi pleaded guilty to war crimes over the deliberate destruction of buildings at a UNESCO-listed desert heritage site in Mali in 2012.

A former Malian rebel leader has pleaded guilty at the International Criminal Court to destroying priceless monuments in Timbuktu in 2012.

As the Two-Way has reported, the trial against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is believed to be the first time desecration of cultural heritage has been prosecuted as a war crime by the tribunal in The Hague.

For our Newscast unit, Teri Schultz reports:

Al-Mahdi admits he's guilty and is asking for forgiveness for heading-up an al-Qaida-linked group that desecrated most of Timbuktu's 16 historic mausoleums, along with ancient manuscripts and a mosque. Al-Mahdi spoke to the International Criminal Court through an interpreter, [saying,] "I am really sorry, I am really remorseful and I regret all the damage my actions have caused."

It's the first time a defendant has admitted his guilt at the ICC. ... Even though al-Mahdi has pleaded guilty, the trial will last several days as judges will decide how long he should go to prison.

Mahdi was indicted and arrested last September. The maximum sentence for his crimes is 30 years, but he may receive a lesser prison term because he admitted guilt. A list of the mausoleums he is accused of damaging is here.

In 2012, Mahdi allegedly led al-Qaida militants on a rampage through Timbuktu's historic sites as the fighters fled French and Malian troops liberating the city, which is a U.N. World Heritage site. The extremist rebels had controlled the city for months.

The city's Ahmad Baba Institute, which housed ancient manuscripts from as far back as the 13th century, was set on fire. Although Mahdi is not being charged with personally destroying the site, the destruction of the Hebrew and Arabic texts inside is included in the evidence against him.

Shortly after Timbuktu was liberated, then-Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse, told NPR's Ofeibia Quist-Arcton sorrowfully, "These priceless manuscripts are my identity. They're my history. They're documents about Islam, history, geography, botany, poetry. They're close to my heart, and they belong to the whole world."

Mahdi told the court he is unsure of his exact age, but believes he about 45 years old. The New York Times reports Mahdi was born near Timbuktu and trained as a teacher.

[Mahdi] studied Islamic law in a Saudi-sponsored school in Libya, was also accused of leading a self-appointed police organization that meted out punishments like public floggings for minor infractions.

"It is with deep regret and great pain that I had to enter a guilty plea on all the charges brought against me," Mr. Mahdi told the court on Monday. Imploring forgiveness, including from the people of Timbuktu, he said, "I would like them to look at me like a son that has lost his way, and to accept my regrets."

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