Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu.jpg
Photograph: Photo by upyernoz, used under CC BY

An unprecedented trial set to begin Monday in the International Criminal Court will consider whether a suspected Islamist leader accused of destroying a World Heritage Site in Mali is guilty of a war crime.

Four years ago, members of the insurgent group Ansar Dine, armed with shovels and pickaxes, laid waste to the centuries-old cultural site of Timbuktu, destroying 14 of the city's 16 mausoleums.

"What is at stake here is not just walls and stones," said ICC lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

This is "a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots."

The Hague-based court will determine whether, as the leader of Ansar Dine, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is responsible specifically for the destruction of nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in 2012.

Ansar Dine was one of two rebel group that overran Timbuktu in northern Mali and tried to impose sharia law on residents.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has described the city's three great mosques - Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia - and Timbuktu's 16 mausoleums as "essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage."

Al-Mahdi was arrested in Niger and transferred to the court last year.

He has since said that he will plead guilty to the charges. If that happens, his trial could wrap up in a week, another unheard of occurrence in the court's history of sluggish, years-long proceedings that have drawn criticism.

Located in present-day Mali, Timbuktu was an important centre for trade, economy and religion in the 15th and 16th centuries, and played an important role in spreading Islam in Africa. Its position near the Niger River allowed it to flourish, serving for centuries as the primary link between the Mediterranean and West Africa.

In defiance of the rebels' actions, the mausoleums of Timbuktu stand again.

The extremists were driven out by a French military intervention in April 2013, opening the way for restoration projects led by UNESCO and financially supported by the European Union.

Many of the mausoleums date back to Timbuktu's days of glory in the Middle Ages, when it was one of the greatest centres of learning and trade in the Islamic world.

Their destruction sparked international outcry, echoed in 2015 with the obliteration of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by the Islamic State extremist group.

With the destruction of Palmyra still fresh on the world's mind, prosecutors are keen to set an example with the Timbuktu trial.

"This sends a resounding message against impunity, including today in Syria and Iraq," said Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, in June during a visit to The Hague.

Islamic State captured the world's attention in 2015 when it released videos and photographs documenting its destruction of archaeological sites, historical buildings and cultural artefacts in Iraq and Syria.

The trial is also an important precedent for UNESCO, a sign that the international community is not powerless against such destruction.

Bokova, who is angling at the moment to become UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's replacement, has been a consistent crusader for world monuments that have been destroyed in conflict areas, calling the attacks part of an overall strategy of "cultural cleansing."

"The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime, which is used as a tactic of war, to disseminate fear and hatred," she said at the visit. "The destruction of heritage is inseparable from the persecution of people."

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