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A still from a video shows Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1, 2012. An alleged Al-Qaeda linked Islamist leader was on September 26, 2015 handed over to the International Criminal Court to face charges of aiding the destruction of Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu, in the first such case before the tribunal.Stringer/AFP / Getty Images

In a landmark case for cultural crimes, a radical Islamist leader will face trial in The Hague for the destruction of historic tombs in the ancient city of Timbuktu.

The case, the first ever war-crimes prosecution in The Hague for acts of cultural destruction, could set a precedent for further arrests for similar attacks on historic buildings in places such as Palmyra, the ancient site in Syria where temples and tombs have been blown up by Islamic State extremists in recent weeks.

Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi, also known as Abu Tourab, was brought to The Hague on Saturday on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. He is charged with overseeing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu in 2012 after the legendary city in northern Mali was captured by Islamists with links to al-Qaeda.

"The people of Mali deserve justice for the attacks against their cities, their beliefs and their communities," said a statement on Saturday by the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

"Let there be no mistake: the charges we have brought against Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi involve most serious crimes," she said. "They are about the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments, and they are about a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations and their religious and historical roots."

Intentional attacks on historic monuments and religious sites are considered serious crimes under the ICC's founding treaty, the Rome Statute. "No longer should such reprehensible conduct go unpunished," Ms. Bensouda said. "It is rightly said that 'cultural heritage is the mirror of humanity.' Such attacks affect humanity as a whole. We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage."

The ICC has been investigating war crimes in Mali since 2013, following a request from the Malian government. The authorities of Mali's neighboring country, Niger, transferred Mr. Faqi into the international court's custody on Saturday, the court said. He had apparently fled to Niger at some point after French and Malian troops pushed the Islamists out of Timbuktu in 2013.

Mr. Faqi, born about 100 kilometres west of Timbuktu, was one of the most zealous activists in Ansar Dine, a mainly Tuareg militia with close links to another Islamist radical group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The latter group was also notorious for holding two Canadian diplomats hostage in northern Mali in 2009.

Ansar Dine and AQIM controlled Timbuktu for most of 2012 and early 2013, and Mr. Al Faqi was a leader in an "Islamic Court" and a "Manners Brigade" that enforced harsh fundamentalist rules on the city and its traditionally moderate Muslim people. In an interview with local journalists in 2012, he boasted of how his militia forced the city's women to be veiled in public, and how women were ordered to stay home if they violated the clothing rules.

Timbuktu, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was an affluent gold-trading city and a centre of Islamic teaching from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Its dozens of schools and universities attracted thousands of students from across the Muslim world, and its vast libraries held hundreds of thousands of Arabic and African manuscripts.

When the Islamist extremists seized the city in 2012, they used pickaxes to destroy the shrines of the city's greatest thinkers and saints, and they burned thousands of manuscripts. They said the mausoleums were a blasphemous form of idol worship. "Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu – Allah doesn't like it," one Ansar Dine leader told journalists in 2012. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area."

The ICC prosecutor, Ms. Bensouda, said the arrest of Mr. Faqi "represents an important step forward in the fight against impunity, not only in Mali but also in the broader Sahel and Sahara region of Africa, whose populations have in recent years been subjected to unspeakable crimes."

She hinted at further arrests to come. "I am confident that our close collaboration with the Malian authorities will continue to generate positive results for our common cause of holding to account those most responsible for perpetrating atrocity crimes in the country."

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