An al-Qaida member responsible for destroying ancient artifacts in historic Timbuktu, Mali, told the International Criminal Court Monday he was profoundly sorry for his actions.
Ahmad al-Mahdi opened his trial telling the judges, “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.”
Mahdi was a member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb during its two year occupation of Timbuktu. Mahdi admitted his role in personally destroying nine mausoleums and a mosque door, and expressed “deep regret.”
“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way,” Mahdi said of the people of Timbuktu. Mahdi added, “I would like to make them a solemn promise that this was the first and the last wrongful act I will ever commit.”
Mahdi is the first person to be tried on charges of destroying religious or cultural heritages sites since the establishment of the court in 2002. He was arrested by French forces in 2014, when France intervened in Mali to drive the jihadist group into the dessert.
Mahdi faces a sentence of 30 years, but prosecutors indicated they would ask the court for a sentence of nine to 11 years in prison. Mahdi told the judges he hoped his time in prison “will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me.”
“There is a clear link between crimes committed against people and attacks on their cultural heritage,” Harvard Islamic art scholar Andras Riedlmayer told The New York Times.
Riedlmayer added, “The ethnic cleansers in the Balkans, like the jihadis in Iraq, Syria and Timbuktu and other places, are keenly aware of the significance of this, which is why they devote so much personnel and resources to the destruction of religious and cultural landmarks.”
The Islamic State has routinely attacked religious historic sites in territory it controls. In late 2015, ISIS destroyed a UNESCO World Heritage site at the Syrian city of Palymra, for having Muslim iconography it deemed “un-islamic.”
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