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The slow acceptance that destroying cultural heritage is a war crime

AHMAD Al-FAQI AL-MAHDI is probably not the world’s most terrible wrecker of cultural and spiritual heritage, but as he regretfully admitted, he was party to the destruction of some shrines in his homeland, Mali. These were places which have been recognised over the centuries as an important locus of prayer and pilgrimage, and as testimonies to a once-great civilisation. This week he made history: he was sentenced to nine years in prison in The Hague by the International Criminal Court , which is supposed to try the world’s most egregious misdeeds but has only managed to jail a handful of people during its 14 years of existence. The verdict was hailed as an important legal milestone: the first time such a prestigious court had so explicitly recognised the destruction of religious and cultural patrimony as a war crime. Mr Mahdi’s misdeed was to organise and participate in the destruction of structures made of mud and stone which had been erected long ago over the graves of revered Islamic holy men and scholars. The vandalism happened in the summer of 2012; that was a time when two ultra-militant Muslim groups, al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine, temporarily took control of the north of the […]

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