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ICC/Mali: First Guilty Plea in War Crimes Case

(Aug. 24, 2016) On August 22, 2016, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, described as a jihadist from Mali, pleaded guilty at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to destroying historical and religious monuments, which is a war crime. He is the first person ever to plead guilty to a charge at that court. (Malian Jihadist Pleads Guilty at ICC to Timbuktu Attacks, AFP (Aug. 22, 2016), Open Source Enterprise online subscription database, No. AFR2016082235965085.) The ruling in his case will be issued on September 27, 2016. (Highlights, ICC website (last visited Aug. 24, 2016).) On September 18, 2015, a warrant of arrest was issued for al-Mahdi; he was surrendered to the ICC on September 26. On March 1, 2016, he expressed his willingness to admit his guilt, and the charges against him were confirmed on March 24, 2016, in ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I. (Press Release, ICC, Al Mahdi Case: Accused Makes an Admission of Guilt at Trial Opening (Aug. 22, 2016).)

The case of The Prosecutor v. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is being heard in Trial Chamber VIII of the ICC in The Hague, with Presiding Judge Paul C. Pangalangan, Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua, and Judge Bertram Schmitt. The crime to which al-Mahdi pleaded guilty was destruction of historical and religious monuments in the city of Timbuktu, Mali, from June 30 to July 11, 2012. In addition to being the first instance of someone pleading guilty at the ICC, it is the first international case to focus on the demolition of monuments. (Id.)

Specifically, al-Mahdi is accused of directing attacks on nine famous mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, Mali. He was a member of Ansar Dine, a movement that together with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took over Timbuktu in 2012. Founded centuries ago by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been called the “city of 333 saints” because it is the burial site of many Muslim sages, and it is well-known as an historical center of Islamic erudition, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, considered the golden age of the location. It has been designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage site, but jihadist groups considered it “idolatrous.” (Malian Jihadist Pleads Guilty at ICC to Timbuktu Attacks, supra.)

After the charge was read, the accused said, “[y]our honour, regrettably I have to say that what I heard so far is accurate and reflects the events. I plead guilty.” (Id.) Following this statement, the ICC judges questioned al-Mahdi to be sure that he understood the consequences of the plea and that it had been made voluntarily, after consultation with his attorney. The prosecution then began what is expected to be two to three days of presentation of the case against al-Mahdi. The defense will be able to present witnesses, including statements on possible sentences, before the judges make their final ruling. (Press Release, supra.)

Defense attorney Mohamed Aouini earlier stated that the accused seeks a pardon for his actions and that he is “a Muslim who believes in justice. … He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit [to] the acts that he has committed.” (Malian Jihadist Pleads Guilty at ICC to Timbuktu Attacks, supra.) A different view was expressed by ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who stated that cultural destruction such as that which occurred in Timbuktu “is tantamount to an assault on people’s history. It robs future generations of their landmarks and their heritage. … No one who destroys that which embodies the very soul and the roots of a people through such crimes should be allowed to escape justice.” (Id.)