A Malian armed fighter is facing the first ever court case against an individual charged with war crimes on a World Heritage site.
Ahmas al-Faqi al-Mahdi is standing trial on Monday at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for the intentional attack on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahi mosque within the city of Timbuktu in Mali.
He is expected to plead guilty to war crimes that took place between June 30 and July 1, 2012, which could see him imprsioned for up to 30 years.
Mahdi is the first person to be charged with war crimes arising out of the conflict in Mali.
READ MORE: Tuareg leader sent to ICC for Timbuktu crimes
Prosecutors from the ICC suspect that Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg armed group that occupied the region roughly 1,000km northeast of Bamako alongside Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) four years ago.
As the head of the Hisbah, or the Manners Brigade, he is alleged to have ordered the attacks on the shrines with pickaxes, chisels and pick-up trucks.
The motives behind Mahdi's order were growing frustration with the local people, who refused to stop worshiping the ancient shrines with such rites as praying for rain or a good marriage.
The spiritual centre of Timbuktu was founded between the 5th and 12th centuries.
It was named the City of 333 Saints in reference to the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Despite its reverence as the epicentre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries, armed fighters condemned the land as idolatrous.
And so, during the 10-month occupation, they managed to destroy 14 ancient mausoleums and part of a mosque before French and Malian troops advanced on the city.
Fatou Bensouda, the ICC chief prosecutor, told AFP that such cultural destruction "is tantamount to an assault on people's history" and "robs future generations of their landmarks and their heritage".
"No one who destroys that which embodies the very soul and the roots of a people through such crimes should be allowed to escape justice," Bensouda said.
READ MORE: Timbuktu heritage 'under threat'
The ICC's chief prosecutor compared the Timbuktu case with the destruction of historic ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have also turned artefacts from the Mosul Museum, Iraq’s second largest museum, into rubble.
Archaeologists hope, in light of the prevalent war on art, that the trial will send a hard-hitting message to groups that wrecking culturally cherished artefacts will not go unpunished.
If Mahdi pleads guilty at the trial, the prosecution will start to lay out its case with a verdict and judgment following later.
Alternatively, if he denies the charge, the hearing will be postponed and a new trial date set.