Malian jihadist guilty of Timbuktu attacks

The Hague, War crimes judges today found a Malian jihadist guilty of destroying Timbuktu's fabled shrines, and were set to pass sentence amid hopes the court will send a strong message to help safeguard the world's ancient monuments.

A three-judge bench began handing down its judgements against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, the first jihadist to stand trial at the tribunal in The Hague.

Mahdi "oversaw the attacks on all 10" shrines and mosques in the UNESCO world heritage site, presiding judge Raul Pangalangan told the tribunal based in The Hague, west Netherlands.

"The chamber unanimously finds that Mr al-Mahdi is guilty  of the crime of attacking protected sites as a war crime," he added, saying the crime had "significant gravity".

The historic verdict is the first to focus solely on cultural destruction as a war crime and the first arising out of the conflict in Mali.

Prosecutors have asked for a jail term of between nine and 11 years, which they said would recognise both the severity of the crime and the fact that Mahdi was the first person to plead guilty before the court. 

Observers say they hope the sentence will act as a deterrent to those bent on razing the world's cultural heritage, which UN chief Ban Ki-moon recently condemned as "tearing at the fabric of societies".

In an unprecedented move, Mahdi, aged between 30 and 40, last month pleaded guilty to the single war crimes charge of "intentionally directing" attacks in 2012 on nine of Timbuktu's mausoleums and the centuries-old door of the city's Sidi Yahia mosque.

The slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair asked the pardon of his people as videos were shown of him and other Islamist extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pick-axes and bulldozers.

Founded between the fifth and 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.

Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was however considered idolatrous by the jihadists who swept across Mali's remote north in early 2012.

As the head of the so-called Hisbah or "Manners Brigade," it was Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, who gave the orders to ransack the sites.