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ICC Sentences Islamist to 9 Years for Destroying Mali Shrines

FILE - Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi enters the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.

In an unprecedented decision, the International Criminal Court Tuesday convicted a Muslim extremist of destroying centuries-old religious shrines in Mali.

It is the first time the Hague court has treated such destruction as a war crime, sentencing Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to nine years in prison.

Al-Mahdi faced as much as 30 years in prison. But the court said it took into account his admission of guilt and regret, along with his plea to other Muslims not to do what he did.

Al-Mahdi was charged with overseeing the destruction of the centuries-old shrines with pickaxes and bulldozers in the ancient city of Timbuktu when Islamic extremists briefly seized control of northern Mali in 2012.

Timbuktu is a United Nations World Heritage site.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova called the court's ruling against al-Mahdi a "landmark in gaining recognition of the importance of heritage for humanity as a whole, and for the communities that have preserved it over the centuries."

Timbuktu residents who watched the shrines being torn down also cheered. A tour guide told the French News Agency that "justice has been served to our ancestors."

State Department spokesman Mark Toner called such destruction a tool of terrorists to erase history and eradicate identities. He repeated Secretary of State John Kerry's assertion that such acts "are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand."