By Stephanie van den Berg
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - War crimes judges on Tuesday sentenced a former Islamist rebel who admitted wrecking holy shrines during Mali's 2012 conflict to nine years in prison, in the first such case to focus on destruction of cultural heritage.
Human rights groups and international legal experts hope Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi's case in the International Criminal Court may serve as a deterrent to a kind of devastation that continues to be a feature of global conflicts yet has gone largely unpunished.
Al-Mahdi expressed remorse for his involvement in the destruction of 10 mausoleums and religious sites in Timbuktu dating from Mali's 14th-century golden age as a trading hub and center of Sufi Islam, a branch of the religion seen as idolatrous by some hardline Muslim groups.
The sites, nine of them on the UNESCO World Heritage list, "had an emotional and symbolic meaning for the residents of Timbuktu", the panel of judges at The Hague said. Several sites were razed to the ground or badly damaged and needed to be completely rebuilt.
By striking at their most meaningful religious sites, al-Mahdi participated in "a war activity aimed at breaking the soul of the people," said presiding Judge Raul Pangalangan.
Specifically, the judges said, he "exercised joint control over the attacks" by planning, leading and participating in them, supplying pick-axes and in one case a bulldozer.
Such acts have rarely been prosecuted despite being illegal under international law, but have attracted increasing international outrage after the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and, more recently, Islamic State jihadists smashed monuments in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
Those acts have not been investigated by the ICC because Syria is not a member of the court and the destruction in Afghanistan predates the court's jurisdiction.
Instead, prosecutors at the ICC have largely focused on war crimes in African states, earning the 14-year-old court criticism for not going after more politically challenging hotspots, such as the occupied Palestinian territories.
SWEPT UP IN A WAVE
The ICC has been examining events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized part of the north, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. French and Malian troops pushed them back the following year.
During his brief trial in August al-Mahdi asked for forgiveness and said he had been swept up in an "evil wave" when al Qaeda and the Ansar Dine Islamist groups briefly seized control of the ancient sites.
Prosecutors and the defense had agreed beforehand to accept a sentence of 9 to 11 years for the former religious teacher, who sat quietly in a gray suit, nodding as the verdict was read aloud.
Judges said the sentence took into account al-Mahdi's "genuine remorse, deep regret and deep pain" and his calls on other Muslims not to make the same mistakes he did.
"Such an admission may have a deterrent effect on others tempted to commit similar acts in Mali and elsewhere," Pangalangan said.
UNESCO said in a statement the verdict was "a landmark in gaining recognition for the importance of heritage for humanity as a whole and for the communities that have preserved it over the centuries".
"This case is of phenomenal significance considering the character of armed conflict going on around the world and the amount of cultural property that is being destroyed," said Carrie Comer, permanent representative to the ICC of Paris-based rights watch dog FIDH.
She said that given al-Mahdi's remorse and cooperation, the sentence "is quite a strong deterrent message: saying we do take these crimes seriously, they have an impact on victims not only in the immediate vicinity but really on the international community as a whole."
A warrant for al-Mahdi's arrest was issued by the ICC on Sept. 18, 2015, and he was handed over by neighbouring Niger eight days later.
Mali's government welcomed the conviction as a source of "hope for all the victims of the barbaric ideology ... of the narco-terrorists in northern Mali", adding that it "should serve as a ... warning to criminals who attack cultural property".
Residents reached in Timbuktu had mixed views about the verdict.
"Nine years in prison is little. But he deserves the sentence as an example for all who committed these barbaric acts," said Alhoussaini Saye, a teacher.
Hawa Sisse, a trader in a Timbuktu market, said: "I was expecting him to be imprisoned for life, but (the court) decided otherwise. I hope that his return to Timbuktu in nine years will not be perceived as a sort of victory among the militants."
Mali expert Bruce Whitehouse said Malians are worried al-Madhi's case will "wind up being a kind of fig leaf".
When the ICC's prosecutor opened its Mali investigation in 2012, "there were different classes of crimes, including murder, torture, execution, pillaging, rape," said Whitehouse, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
"I think Malians find it ironic that the only crime that's been prosecuted is for this attack against protected objects category," he said.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Tim Cocks in Dakar; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and David Stamp)