Timbuktu Residents Protested the Destruction of Historic Buildings, Witness Says

A witness told the International Criminal Court (ICC) residents of the northern Mali city of Timbuktu protested when Islamic extremists brought down centuries-old mausoleums in 2012.

Witness P-431 told the court on Tuesday that the people of Timbuktu considered the mausoleums central to their identity, and they were proud of the listing of some of them on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“All people are proud of Timbuktu and its renown, as well as the role the city played in the history of Mali,” said Witness P-431.

When the mausoleums were attacked, Timbuktu residents “protested in the sense that it [the mausoleums] is their property,” said Witness P-431, who spoke in French with his testimony translated into English.

The witness was testifying on the second day of the trial of Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, who was a local leader of the extremist Islamic groups Ansar Eddine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb when the two groups controlled Timbuktu in 2012.

Al Faqi is charged with a single war crime for completely or partially destroying nine mausoleums and a door of a mosque in Timbuktu between June 30 and July 11, 2012. He allegedly carried out the attacks against these historic buildings while he was leader of a morality brigade called Hisbah.

Witness P-431 described how the people of Timbuktu saw the mausoleums as part of their lives, with masons not charging for the work of maintaining the mausoleums.

“They [the mausoleums] are seen as a place where one is protected,” the witness said. “They are places that people, they have a special link or tie. It is almost as if they can communicate, commune with the building[s].”

Witness P-431 told the court that when he heard the mausoleums were attacked, he was concerned because he said he knew their listing as World Heritage sites was based on the buildings remaining intact.

“First of all, I was concerned. I was concerned about the integrity of Timbuktu’s heritage, which was coming under attack because the classification in national heritage means that the building is kept in its entirety and destroying it, this takes away the universal exceptional value of it,” the witness said.

Witness P-431’s identity was not made public, but it was clear from his testimony that he was at least a regular visitor to Timbuktu. He testified under protective measures that included him being visible to only those in the courtroom. He was not visible to those in the public gallery, and for people following the proceedings online, his face and voice were distorted. A significant part of the testimony of Witness P-431 was made in closed court. He testified as an expert witness.

Al Faqi’s lawyer did not cross-examine Witness P-431. The lawyer for victims, Mayombo Kassongo, did not have any questions for the witness. Kassongo is absent but Presiding Judge Raul C. Pangalangan said on Monday, Kassongo had already indicated to the court that he would not be questioning any of the prosecution witnesses. Judge Pangalangan said Kassongo is expected to be in court later this week to make submissions.

Earlier in the day, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Francesco Bandarin, testified as an expert witness. Bandarin described to the court the different international agreements and laws that involve culture. He also described to the court the procedure for a building or monument to get listed as a World Heritage site.

Bandarin told the court that when three mosques and 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu were listed as World Heritage sites in 1988, they were in a bad state, so they were also added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites. He said they remained on the endangered list for 10 years. He explained that being on the endangered list meant those buildings would get more attention and be entitled to additional funding to help conserve them.

He said the maintenance of these World Heritage sites was “extremely complex.” Bandarin said one factor making maintenance difficult was the climate of Timbuktu. He observed the city has a season of torrential rains when it can rain continually for two or three days. Bandarin said the city also has a season of windstorms, which blow around huge amounts of sand that is damaging to buildings.

Bandarin said that in the case of the mosques, imams now organize the community to conserve them. He described witnessing how the community carries out the yearly work of plastering the walls. Bandarin said women at the base of the walls of the mosque mold clay into balls, which they then pass on to men who are positioned along the height of the walls, plastering the walls.

Towards the end of his testimony, senior trial lawyer Gilles Dutertre asked Bandarin to describe the historical importance of Timbuktu.

“It played an important role in the expansion of Islam in the Sahelian region,” Bandarin replied.

“Could we summarize that Timbuktu was an intellectual capital, religious capital of the region?” asked Dutertre.

Timbuktu was “matching the role that Florence played in the Renaissance in the religious life, the intellectual life of the region,” said Bandarin.

Al Faqi’s lawyer did not cross-examine Bandarin.

Tuesday’s hearing began with Witness P-182, who had started testifying on Monday. Trial lawyer Colin Black asked him questions about how Al Faqi got involved with Ansar Eddine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. He also asked Witness P-182 how Al Faqi became the leader of the Hisbah.

Witness P-182 said that when Al Faqi was appointed the leader of the Hisbah in April 2012 he considered that is the time he became a member of Ansar Eddine. The witness said that there was no formal process of joining Ansar Eddine, so Al Faqi took his appointment to head the morality brigade to mean he was a member of Ansar Eddine.

Black also asked him about how the decision to destroy the mausoleums was reached. Witness P-182 said Al Faqi was of the view that sharia law did not allow the building of mausoleums over graves. During his interview with prosecution staff, Al Faqi explained that he did not feel he was competent to decide whether to destroy the mausoleums and left that decision to his superiors.

When it was his turn to cross-examine the witness, Mohamed Aouini, Al Faqi’s lawyer, asked whether his client was cooperative and truthful during his interview with staff from the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor.

“Yes, during the interview, Mr. Al Mahdi undoubtedly cooperated during the interview. What he said to a large extent corroborated what we knew from before and specified and clarified certain issues,” said Witness P-182.

Aouini also asked Al Faqi’s state of mind during the interview.

“During the interview did you have a feeling that in the intonation of Mr. Al Mahdi, did you have a feeling that Mr. Al Mahdi was remorseful for what he had done?”

Witness P-182 said he could not tell whether the accused was remorseful, but he “appreciated that he [Al Faqi] had owned up to what he had done, and he took responsibility for his own deeds.”

Tuesday’s hearing ended with all the prosecution witnesses concluding their testimony. The defense is not calling any witnesses. There are two witnesses the defense tried to get to testify, but they faced logistical hurdles. Judge Raul C. Pangalangan had already ruled that because these were expected to be character witnesses, the defense can submit their statements for the court to consider when it comes to sentencing.

The prosecution is scheduled to make finals submissions on Wednesday.

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