When Islamic rebels backed by al-Qaeda infiltrated Timbuktu in 2012, they wreaked havoc in the Malian city and destroyed Muslim shrines, including nine mausoleums and the door of a mosque that had remained shut for hundreds of years, per the Guardian. Now Ahmad al-Mahdi, a former employee with Mali's education department, is facing war crimes charges at the Hague for directing this cultural decimation, pleading guilty Monday at the international criminal court—the ICC's first prosecution of such a case, the New York Times reports. "All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry," al-Mahdi told the court, noting his following of Islam led him to repent. "We have to be truthful, even if it burns our own hands." And the lead prosecutor says al-Mahdi used his own hands during the rampage, showing "determination and focus" to turn the revered structures to rubble.
"We must eliminate from the landscape everything that doesn't belong," al-Mahdi, believed to be around 40, said in a 2012 video shown in court. Although he could have faced up to 30 years in prison, al-Mahdi struck a deal that will likely net him just nine to 11 years behind bars. Although al-Madhi was suspected of other crimes, too, the ICC prosecutor purposely limited charges to the cultural destruction as a symbolic move, per Swissinfo.ch. Some experts say the case could spur the prosecution of other culturally related war crimes in countries like Iraq and Syria, which the ICC doesn't have reach over. Al-Mahdi promised in court he wouldn't commit such a transgression ever again, asked Timbuktu residents to forgive him "as a son who has lost his way," and said he hoped the "evil spirits" that took him over will be purged in prison, per the Guardian. (A dissenting opinion in the Guardian.)