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Malian Jihadist Pleads Guilty to Cultural War Crimes Charges


FILE - Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi waits in the court room for his initial appearance at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Sept. 30, 2015.

A Malian jihadist has pleaded guilty to destroying cherished monuments in the Malian city of Timbuktu, in the International Criminal Court's first-ever cultural war crimes trial.

\The trial at the International Criminal Court of Islamist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to last only a few days. That is because al-Mahdi has accepted the charges against him, directing 2012 attacks against nine mausoleums and a mosque in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu.

Pleading guilty and reading out a statement at the trial’s opening -- translated here by an interpreter -- he said he had been influenced by deviant groups, and urged other Muslims not to follow his example.

“I am really sorry, I am really remorseful and I regret all the damage my actions have caused," al-Mahdi said. "I regret what I had caused to my family, my community in Timbuktu, what I have caused my home nation Mali and I am really remorseful of what I caused the international community as a whole.”

Al-Mahdi is accused of leading a vice squad organized by militant group Ansar Dine, which attacked and occupied Timbuktu, a renown city of culture and learning and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The radical group with ties to al-Qaida imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, until French forces drove it out in 2013.

The trial is the first time a defendant has pled guilty at the ICC, and the first time the international tribunal is holding a war crimes trial for destroying cultural monuments.

Attacking Timbuktu’s culture, chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda argued, is an attack on humanity.

“Culture is who we are. Our ancestors created paintings, sculptures, mosques, temples and other forms of cultural possessions all around us," she said. "They put their hearts and souls into the creation of such cultural heritage so that it represents the cultural identity of their times, and is passed on for future generations.”

Bensouda stressed the broader implications of the landmark case, at a time when radical groups are attacking ancient monuments and artifacts in places like Syria and Iraq.

While welcoming the trial, rights groups say they regret charges against al-Mahdi were not broadened to include other crimes, and that others involved in war crimes in Mali should also face justice.

Al-Mahdi could face up to 30 years in prison, but prosecutors say they will seek a sentence of nine to 11 years.