ICC Timbuktu destruction case – all you need to know

A key International Criminal Court pre-trial hearing opens on 1 March to decide whether to try a suspected Islamist for allegedly destroying UNESCO protected buildings in Timbuktu in northern Mali in 2012. Here’s all you need to know about the first such case to come before the ICC.

First ICC case for destruction of cultural heritage

In June 2012, Mali asked the ICC prosecutor to investigate alleged grave international crimes occurring in the context of an armed conflict after Islamist rebels took control of parts of northern Mali in January 2012.

An ICC arrest warrant was issued under seal for suspected Islamist rebel Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi on 18 September 2015. He was arrested and transferred to ICC custody by the government of Niger on 26 September 2016.

The prosecutor alleges al Faqi worked closely with terrorist groups Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, heading the so-called Manners’ Brigade in Timbuktu and is associated with the Islamic Court of Timbuktu.

He is charged with the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against historical monuments or buildings dedicated to religion a war crime under the Rome Statute, suspected of having committed, facilitated or otherwise contributed – by himself or together with others – to the attacks.

As well as being the first such case to come before the ICC, this is also the first, and so far only, arising from the prosecutor’s Mali investigation, and the first time a suspected Islamic extremist has come before the ICC.

The city of Timbuktu is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is heralded as the
center for Islamic culture and learning between the 13th and 17th centuries. The destruction of the city’s cultural heritage following the invasion of northern Mali by Islamist rebels in 2012 provoked international outcry.

Civil society comment

The Mali Coalition for the ICC said the arrest of al Faqi was  a major step forward in the fight against impunity.

“The Malian Coalition for the ICC is outraged by the acts committed by al Faqi both on his individual capacity and collectively with other persons against buildings and heritages dedicated to religion and/or historical monuments inscribed on the World Heritage list and placed under UNESCO protection,”

While welcoming the case, the International Federation for Human Rights called on the ICC Office of the Prosecutor to further consider credible allegations of al-Faqi’s criminal responsibility for additional international crimes committed against civilians, including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage in Northern Mali.

Mark Ellis, chief executive of the International Bar Association,

“Politically, there will be those who will question why Bensouda is focusing on ancient sites rather than going after rape, torture and murder convictions, but destruction of cultural heritage is not a second-rate crime. It’s part of an atrocity to erase a people. I hope it will act as a deterrent to similar acts in other countries.”

Open Society Justice Initiative:

“This 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.”

Read the International Justice Monitor al Faqi case briefing paper.

So what next?

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will present evidence to support her case against al Faqi, while the defense will have the opportunity to object to the charges and challenge the prosecutor’s evidence. Al Faqi will be represented by a team of counsel headed by Mohamed Aouini. No victims are participating in the proceedings against al Faqi.

The judges of Pre-Trial Chamber I must then decide whether there is sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. Judges Cuno Tarfusser (Presiding), Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and Chang-ho Chung must make a decision within 60 days of the parties’ final submissions. They can confirm the charges and send the case to trial; reject the charges; or request the prosecutor to provide additional evidence or amend the charges

In al-Faqi’s first appearance before the ICC, Judge Tarfusser outlined measures to expedite proceedings. These measures were developed as best practices to be followed in pre-trial proceedings. These are now consolidated under the Chambers Practice Manual and serve to contribute to the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the proceedings before the Court.

The confirmation of charges hearing was initially scheduled for 18 January, but due to a number of technical and logistical reasons the hearings were postponed to this week.

Further reading

Destruction of Timbuktu goes before ICC judges, JusticeInfo

Who is the first alleged Islamist at the ICC?, JusticeHub

ICC’s first cultural destruction trial to open in The Hague, The Guardian

Mali at the ICC: The blueprint for a new strategy or a bird in the hand?, International Justice Tribune

Some Take Massive Risks To Save Syria’s Cultural Heritage, NPR

Prosecuting the destruction of shrines at the ICC – a clash of civilisations, JusticeHub

A landmark moment for the ICC: The war crime of cultural destruction, UN News and Commentary


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