THE HAGUE - Prosecutors will on Tuesday unveil charges against an alleged al-Qaeda-linked Islamist accused of destroying monuments at the fabled city of Timbuktu in an unprecedented case before the world's only permanent war crimes court.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi will be the first jihadist to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the first person in its dock facing war crimes charges for allegedly ordering an attack on a historic monument.
Prosecutors will be seeking to convince three judges they have enough evidence to try Faqi, who is about 40, in what will also be the first case brought by the ICC over the extremist violence that rocked the western African nation of Mali from 2012 to 2013.
The two-day hearing at the court in The Hague has been called to confirm the charges against Faqi, before the start of an eventual trial at a later date.
Straddling the southern gateway of the Sahara desert and a protected world heritage site, the mere mention of Timbuktu, which was once a key trading post, evokes centuries of history.
So there was global outcry when jihadists overran it in early 2012, and attacked its ancient earthen mausoleums dating back to the city's golden age as an economic, intellectual and spiritual centre in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Centre of civilisation
"I think this is an extremely powerful case," Stephen Rapp, former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes, told AFP.
"In these sort of conflicts, the destruction of religious, cultural or historical objects, and the patrimony of the people, is another way in which you destroy a civilisation, destroy a religion, the kind of things on which life is based in our societies."
Timbuktu, founded in the 11th century, was "one of the great centres of Islamic learning in the world, a centre of civilisation at a time when Europe was in the dark ages," said Rapp, now a distinguished fellow with The Hague Institute for Global Justice.
But some rights group fear scores of victims from the violence that beset northern Mali will not see justice done, urging that charges be widened against Faqi to include rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage.
Carrie Comer, permanent representative to the ICC for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said it was a "fascinating case".
"We definitely believe that the destruction of cultural property and heritage is indeed a war crime," she told AFP.
"However, it is a bit of challenge for those of us who work with victims in Mali because the destruction of cultural property is not the only thing that this man has been accused of."
She highlighted "credible allegations" made against Faqi and 14 others in Malian courts accusing them of war crimes including sexual atrocities.
"It is difficult to reconcile that this person who has criminal complaints against him in Mali for much broader charges is only being charged with destruction of cultural property."
A leader of the Ansar Dine extremist group, Faqi was unexpectedly handed over to the tribunal in The Hague in September by Mali's neighbour Niger.