The Timbuktu Destruction Prosecution Begins

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Picture taken May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra
A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Picture taken May 15, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

This week at the ICC the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi began. He stands accused of directing the destruction of medieval tombs and a mosque, all world heritage sites, and all a part of Timbuktu’s 15th century heritage. Owen Bowcott reports for the Gaurdian that:


No Taliban or al-Qaida leader was charged with the destruction of Afghanistan’s sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, which were dynamited in 2001. Khmer Rouge genocide trials did not deal with the looting of Cambodia’s Hindu temples. Nor have Islamic State leaders been indicted for destroying Assyrian statues from Nineveh or razing Roman ruins in Palmyra.

The damage inflicted on Timbuktu, known as “the city of 333 saints”, followed the rebellion of al-Qaida-inspired Tuareg militias, armed with weapons from Libya, in the central African state in 2012.

Faqi, a local ethnic Tuareg, is said to have been a member of Ansar Dine and the head of Hesbah, known as the Manners’ Brigade, which considered the mausoleums – built to pay homage to deceased saints – to be blasphemous.

He is accused of directing attacks on 10 ancient mud-brick buildings in June 2012 and July 2012. One of the desecrated sites was the Sidi Yahya mosque, built in 1440 when Timbuktu was a regional centre for learning. It contained Prof Sidi Yahya’s mausoleum.

I’m presenting a short Paper on the trial at the Intersections in International Cultural Heritage Law conference at Georgetown. I find myself a little conflicted about the prosecution.  On the one hand this prosecution offers the chance to dramatically increase the profile of heritage crime prosecution and intervention.

While I have no sympathy for the terrible destruction of these beautiful sites, I also wonder if this is the most important work the ICC prosecutor should be doing. Perhaps it is, but I found persuasive this Op-Ed by Fatouma Harber, a resident of Timbuktu. She questioned whether Al-Faqi, a masters student, should really be the focus of the international community:

But is this man who was handed over to the ICC by the authorities in Niger deserving of the role in which he is being cast – as a major player in the occupation? No, there are many more deserving of justice.

Al-Faqi’s father was one. Ag Alfousseyni Houka Houka was the Ansar Dine judge in Timbuktu. Houka Houka ordered beatings, an amputation and an execution, but he was released by the Malian authorities in June 2014 as part of the reconciliation process.

Many senior members of the other armed groups – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Mujao and the MNLA – who persecuted the populations of the north, have been released by peace-loving Mali. As a UN expert observed, some of these releases were tantamount to the granting of impunity for the acts these groups committed.

Difficult questions to be sure, especially as the instances of heritage destruction and human rights atrocities continue to mount in parts of North Africa, Iraq, and Syria.

  1. Owen Bowcott, ICC’s first cultural destruction trial to open in The Hague, The Guardian, February 28, 2016, (last visited Mar 4, 2016).
  2. Fatouma Harber, Why the ICC has the wrong man on trial over invasion of Timbuktu, The Guardian, September 30, 2015, (last visited Mar 4, 2016).
  3. Annie Shaw, First cultural destruction trial opens at The Hague’s International Criminal Court (2016), (last visited Mar 4, 2016).

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