The Hague - War crimes judges will deliver a historic judgment on Tuesday against a Malian jihadist who admitted attacking Timbuktu's fabled shrines, in a case which could send a strong message against cultural destruction.
Around the globe, 55 places are on Unesco's list of endangered sites and fears are growing for other monuments caught in the crossfire in Iraq and Syria.
Protection of such treasures "is about more than shielding stones and buildings - it is a part of our effort to defend human rights and save people's lives," the UN chief Ban Ki-moon told a recent event at the United Nations on protecting cultural heritage.
He offered the hope that the case of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi before the International Criminal Court (ICC) could "help end impunity".
"Combatants that attack cultural treasures want to damage more than artefacts -- they aim to tear at the fabric of societies," Ban added.
Handed over in 2015 by Niger, Mahdi has been transported from the dunes of the Sahara to a detention cell on the cold North Sea coast in The Hague where the ICC is based.
Pickaxes and bulldozers
In an unprecedented move at the tribunal, which opened in 2002 to prosecute the world's worst crimes, he pleaded guilty last month to the single war crimes charge of "intentionally directing" attacks on nine of Timbuktu's mausoleums and the doors of the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.
But the slight, bespectacled man with a mop of curly hair begged forgiveness as videos were shown of him and other Islamic extremists knocking down ancient earthen shrines with pick-axes and bulldozers.
Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu has been dubbed "the city of 333 saints" and the "pearl of the desert" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Its very name echoes with history. Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was however considered idolatrous by the jihadists who swept across Mali's remote north in early 2012.
They spurned traditional rites carried out at the shrines by locals who came to pray for rain for a good harvest, or for a good husband.
As the head of the so-called Hisbah or "Manners Brigade," it was Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, who gave the orders to ransack the site.
Apologising for his actions, he said he had been overtaken by "evil spirits", urging Muslims not to follow his example, and saying he wanted to seek the pardon of all Malians.
Prosecutors say Mahdi, born in 1975, was a member of the Ansar Dine, one of the jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which seized the northern territory before being mostly chased out by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.
Prosecutors have asked for a jail term of between nine and 11 years, which they said would recognise both the severity of the crime and the fact that Mahdi was the first person to plead guilty before the court.
Trial of firsts
It has been a trial of firsts: Mahdi is the first jihadist hauled before the tribunal; the first person tried for the conflict in Mali and it is the first case focusing on cultural destruction as a war crime.
"We would hope that there wouldn't be an excessively light sentence, in spite of the guilty plea and the recognition of guilt," said Carrie Comer, a spokesperson for the rights group FIDH.
"There is no hierarchy between the crimes and this is a war crime," she insisted. "It's important to send a message that destroying cultural property is a crime and will be sanctioned."
Mahdi has agreed not to appeal whatever sentence is passed when the judges deliver their verdict on Tuesday.
But his lawyers have argued he is "an honest man" who for three months in 2012 "lost his way."
"He wanted to give advice to apply Sharia law, which was a terrible mistake that led to his guilt," defence lawyer Jean-Louis Gilissen said last month.