A Malian man has attended a hearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to assess if evidence against him is strong enough to merit making him stand trial for his involvement in destroying historic sites in Timbuktu.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is the first person to appear in front of the prosecutors at the ICC for planning, directing and participating in attacks against religious monuments in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in the summer of 2012.

ICC prosecutors are building the case against Mahdi on Article 8 of the Rome Statute, which states that the destruction of historic buildings without reason is a war crime. 

If enough evidence is established, Mahdi will stand trial for his alleged involvement in the attack on the centuries-old world heritage site of Timbuktu. 

The case will be the first by the ICC to consider destruction of cultural heritage a war crime.

Mahdi was arrested in Niger and handed over to the court last year. Prosecutors say Mahdi belonged to Ansar al-Dine, an armed group with ties to al-Qaeda. During their occupation of the city, nine mausoleums and the famous Sidi Yahi Mosque were destroyed.

"We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage," said chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda as she unveiled the charges against Mahdi.

UN soldiers on patrol in Timbuktu in January 2016  [Baba Ahmed/AP]

'Exemplary case'

Willem van Genugten, a specialist in international law focusing on cultural heritage at the Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said the hearing was an "an exemplary case".

Van Genugten said the precedent would pave the way for future cases, referring to the current destruction of heritage sites by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in Syria and Iraq.

"This case is not about the bloodshed of civilians but about wiping out historical importance," Van Genugten said. 

"It's about tribes and religion and the history of mankind and about not acknowledging other people's right to history and religion.".

Finding proof of the demolition would not be difficult, but charging individual offenders would be more complicated, Van Genugten said.

"Who was responsible for the orders and who carried it out?" 

Archaeologist and cultural heritage specialist Joris Kila from the University of Vienna said he hoped the trial would raise awareness about the threat to heritage sites.

Kila, who travelled to Timbuktu in 2014 to map out the destruction of the mausoleums and manuscripts, said the case would put pressure on individuals responsible for the destruction of heritage in Syria, Iraq and Libya, with future trials likely.

"ISIL published video footage showing the destruction of images in the museum of Mosul. On the basis of such images you could be able to identify and find the perpetrators and sue them based on individual criminal responsibility as generated by several laws, treaties and conventions," Kila said.

A man holds the remnants of an ancient Islamic manuscript burned by armed groups in Mali [Joe Penney/Reuters]

Source: Al Jazeera