Mali: Al Mahdi trial on destruction of cultural heritage opens at the ICC

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(Bamako, The Hague, Paris) The trial of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, also known as Abu Tourab, will open on 22 August at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The former head of the Morals Police Brigade (Brigade des moeurs) based in Timbuktu faces war crimes charges for his alleged involvement in the destruction of historical and religious monuments in northern Mali. Al Mahdi expressed his intention to plead guilty, which would be the first of such pleas before the ICC. Our organisations welcome this historic first trial on the destruction of cultural heritage, but call upon the ICC to continue its efforts to investigate and prosecute other crimes, including sexual and gender-based crimes, committed in northern Mali.

“Perpetrators of all international crimes – including the destruction of cultural property – should be held to account. We welcome the opening of this trial as well as Al Mahdi’s indication that he will plead guilty, which we hope will contribute to truth-telling and facilitate the justice process in Mali.”

according our organisations

Believed to be chief of the Hisba, the Morals Police Brigade linked to the armed group Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg movement associated with other militia groups active in Mali who together spearheaded the 2012 occupation of the north of the country, Al Mahdi is charged with perpetrating and facilitating the destruction of nine mausoleums as well as one mosque in the Timbuktu region. These culturally and historically significant buildings were either completely destroyed or severely damaged as a result of the attack.

Q&A : The Al Mahdi case at the ICC

Al Mahdi would be the first person to admit to committing war crimes before the ICC as well as the first suspect to appear in relation to the situation in Mali. The trial is estimated to last just one week as a result. Multiple victims have been granted the right to participate in the trial as well, deemed as having suffered material and moral harm from the destruction of the mausoleums and mosque. The decision to recognise damage beyond purely physical harm is a significant step towards understanding the full impact of international crimes on individuals, communities and societies.

“We appreciate the significance of prosecuting the destruction of cultural property, but deeply regret that the charges against Al Mahdi were not widened to include crimes against the civilian population, including sexual and gender-based crimes, whose victims are far too often ignored during accountability processes. We call upon the ICC Prosecutor to investigate all international crimes committed in Mali and prosecute those who allegedly bear the greatest responsibility, while carefully monitoring ongoing national judicial proceedings.”

according our organisations

According to information obtained by FIDH and its member and partner organisations, members of the Islamic police – and in particular its unit responsible for upholding public morals and preventing vice, the “Hisbah” – have since 2012 committed some of the gravest international crimes including torture, crimes against humanity and crimes of sexual violence. In March 2015, our organisations filed a criminal complaint in the name of 33 victims from Timbuktu before the Bamako courts against Al Mahdi and 14 others, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender-based crimes such as rape and sexual slavery.


In January 2012, Mali faced a Tuareg armed rebellion in the north of the country. The National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) quickly launched an offensive, which was opportunely joined by Islamist groups present in the Sahel band (Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Boko Haram). Hostilities were conducted in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. The main northern cities fell into the hands of armed groups from early April 2012 until January 2013 at which point French Malian troops intervened.

Mali ratified the ICC Statute on 16 August 2000. It referred the situation to the ICC Prosecutor on 13 July 2012. On 16 January 2013, the Office of the Prosecutor formally opened an investigation into possible crimes within its jurisdiction committed in Mali. On 13 February 2013, the Malian government and the ICC signed a cooperation agreement in accordance with Section IX of the Rome Statute. The Pre-Trial Chamber issued the first arrest warrant under seal in the Mali situation against Al Mahdi on 18 September 2015. One week later, Al Mahdi, who was in custody of Niger authorities, was transferred to the ICC.

On 24 March 2016, the ICC confirmed charges against Al Mahdi for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against religious and historical buildings in Timbuktu, as a member of the armed extremist group Ansar Dine, affiliated with Al Qaeda. He is suspected of destroying 10 historic buildings, including multiple mausoleums and a mosque. The entire city of Timbuktu is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

According to our investigations conducted in January and February 2015, Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi alias Abu Tourab, a native of the region of Timbuktu, was head of the Hisba (Brigade des moeurs), and one of the four commanders of Ansar Dine responsible for the brutal imposition of power of jihadist armed groups in Timbuktu. At the head of the Hisba, he also endorsed the actions of the “Centre for the implementation of the suitable and prohibition of the blameworthy” (Centre d’application du convenable et de l’interdiction du blâmable). Elements of this group have persecuted women, imprisoning them, and subjecting them to forced marriages. Al Mahdi also sanctioned rape and sexual slavery, directly and by his subordinates. Evidence we have collected also shows him in the process of leading and participating in the destruction of the mausoleums of saints and other Islamic cultural property of great value. After leading the Hisba in Timbuktu, he likely left to fight against the French and Malian armed forces in Konna in January 2013 before retreating to northern Mali and crossing into Niger where he was arrested by French forces and handed over to Nigerian authorities, and then transferred to the ICC in September 2015.
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  • Co-signatories

    AMDH - Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme
    WILDAF – Femmes Droits Développement en Afrique
    2R-AVEN-Réseau Régional des associations des victimes de Tombouctou
    AJM – Association des Juristes Maliennes
    CCC - Collectif Cri de Cœur
    REPSFECO - Réseau Paix et Sécurité des Femmes de l’espace
    APDF - Association pour le Progrès et la Défense des Droits des Femmes
    F&DH - Femmes & Droits Humains
    TRIJEUD-MALI - Tribune des Jeunes pour le Droit au Mali
    FENACOF-Fédération Nationale des Collectifs d’Organisations Féminines du Mali
    MIDA - Association Malienne de Droit International
    CADHP - Centre d’Assistance et de promotion des Droits Humains
    LJDH - Ligue pour la Justice, le Développement et les Droits de l’Homme
    CNDH - Commission Nationale des Droits de l’Homme
    GPDCF - Groupe Pivot Droit et Citoyenneté des Femmes
    COMADDH - Coalition Malienne des Défenseurs des Droits Humains
    ASF/Mali - Avocats Sans Frontières

  • Member organisations - Mali
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