The Hague - An Islamic extremist expressed "deep regret" Monday as he pleaded guilty to orchestrating the destruction of historic mausoleums in the Malian desert city of Timbuktu.
Wearing a dark suit and striped tie, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi stood and calmly told judges he was entering the guilty plea "with deep regret and great pain" and advised Muslims around the world not to commit similar acts, saying "they are not going to lead to any good for humanity."
The guilty plea was a landmark for the court, which has struggled to bring suspects to justice since its establishment in 2002. It was the first guilty plea and the first time prosecutors have launched a trial for the crime of deliberately attacking buildings of religious or cultural significance.
Al Mahdi faces a maximum sentence of 30 years imprisonment, but prosecutors say they will seek a sentence of nine to 11 years.
"Our cultural heritage is not a luxury good," Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the three-judge panel. She said Al Mahdi's guilty plea "will set a clear precedent, sending an important and positive message to the entire world."
She compared the case to the destruction last year of historic ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra by Islamic State extremists.
Court spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said the court cannot bring charges in that case because Syria is not a member of the court and the United Nations Security Council has not called for an ICC investigation.
Al Mahdi led a group of radicals that destroyed 14 of Timbuktu's 16 mausoleums in 2012 because they considered them totems of idolatry. The one-room structures that house the tombs of the city's great thinkers were on the World Heritage list. Prosecutors showed judges a photo of a rebel wielding a pick ax to attack mosque in the city as part of their evidence.
Prosecutors say Al Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, an Islamic extremist group with links to al-Qaida that held power in northern Mali in 2012. The militants were driven out after nearly a year by French forces, which arrested Al Mahdi in 2014 in neighboring Niger.
Human rights activists have welcomed the case, but criticized prosecutors for failing to file more charges against Al Mahdi.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said its member organizations have documented a litany of crimes and filed a criminal complaint on behalf of 33 victims in Malian courts accusing Al Mahdi and 14 others of crimes including rape and sexual slavery.
"We 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," FIDH member organizations said in a statement ahead of the trial.
The trial is scheduled to last a week, with prosecutors presenting judges with evidence of the crimes and his defense lawyer also planning a presentation. Judges will issue a formal verdict and pass sentence at a later hearing.
Al Mahdi told the three-judge panel he hopes his time in prison "will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me."