The government of Niger has handed a rebel accused of attacking religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu over to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is the first time a case that involves the destruction and desecration of historic religious monuments has been brought before the ICC.
Suspect Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi was sent to a detention center in The Hague on Saturday. Al Faqi stands accused of ordering attacks on a mosque and a number of sacred tombs during the summer of 2012.
During that time, Timbuktu was under the control of two millitias, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and an affiliated group of Tuareg rebels called Ansar Dine. Al Faqi was a member of Ansar Dine and head of the so-called "Manners' Brigade" that enforced fundamentalist rules in the city.
The ICC alleges Al Faqi, who worked with the Islamic Court in Timbuktu, was heavily involved in the decisions to destroy at least 10 buildings, including nine mausoleums and one mosque.
At least two of those, the mausoleum Sheikh Sidi Ahmed Ben Amar Arragadi and Sidi Yahia mosque, were UNESCO World Heritage sites.
At the time of the attack in 2012, a spokesman for Ansar Dine said a member of the group had been dispatched to the tomb "to tell the faithful praying there that the saints" should not be adored.
Speaking to Reuters, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda characterized Al Faqi as a zealous member of Ansar Dine who "played a predominant and active role in the functioning of the local structure put in place during the group's occupation of Timbuktu."
"Intentional attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion are serious crimes," she added. "Such attacks affect humanity as a whole."
In the three years since they were destroyed by Ansar Dine, Timbuktu's mausoleums have been restored. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova paid a visit to the site in July, where she called the reconstruction "an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali."
The remark was perhaps intended as a warning to Islamic State militants, who have destroyed multiple historic sites across Syria in recent years, including those in the ancient city of Palmyra.
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