A former trainee teacher accused of damaging monuments in the name of Islam in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu will stand before the International Criminal Court on Tuesday for a hearing to decide if he should face a landmark trial.
Malian citizen Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is the first person to be accused of destroying cultural artifacts by prosecutors at the court, which has previously focused on human rights abuses.
The ICC has been examining events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels known as Ansar Dine seized part of the north, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. French and Malian troops pushed them back the following year. Faqi, an ethnic Tuareg estimated to be about 41 years old, is believed to have been a member of Ansar Dine — an ally of al Qaeda in the Maghreb — and the head of the so-called "morality squad" that enforced fundamentalist rules in the city.
Prosecutors allege that Faqi also helped lead the Islamic Court of Timbuktu that was established by Ansar Dine during its siege. The entity damaged nine mausoleums and the ancient Sidi Yahia mosque, which dates from the 15th Century, when Timbuktu was a regional and global trading hub and seat of learning.
At Tuesday's confirmation of charges hearing, prosecutors intended to convince ICC judges that they have marshaled enough evidence to warrant a full trial on charges of directing the partial destruction of the buildings.
Faqi, who at his first appearance at the ICC in September described himself as a graduate of Timbuktu teachers institute, denies the charges. A goateed college graduate with a shock of tightly curled black hair behind rimless spectacles, he cuts a very different figure from the politicians and warlords who have stood trial there until now.
The court has divided public opinion about its effectiveness since it was established 13 years ago. Critics say it has often targeted the politically weak and its conviction rate is low, while supporters say the sentences it has handed out have served as deterrents.
"The conviction of [Congolese warlord] Thomas Lubanga arguably had a deterrent effect on the use of child soldiers," Bill Schabas, professor at Britain's Middlesex University, told Reuters. "Maybe this will do the same for cultural monument destruction."
While trials at international tribunals generally concern massacres and genocide, the destruction of cultural heritage has often sparked outrage in the realm of global public opinion. Similarly, the ICC has been urged to charge Islamic State fighters for destroying the remains of the ancient city of Palmyra, but it is unable to do so because Syria is not a member of the court.
The Taliban's destruction of the 1,500-year old Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 also attracted condemnation. The Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal, which also sits in The Hague, has prosecuted the destruction of heritage sites, including during the bombardment of Mostar and Dubrovnik, both Unesco World Heritage sites like Timbuktu.