Ahmadi al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty at the International Criminal Court today (Photo: AP)

The Islamic extremist who led a group that destroyed 14 historical mausoleums in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, has pleaded guilty at the International Criminal Court.

Mahdi, by his plea, becomes the first accused person to ever plead guilty at the ICC. He also makes history as the first person to be arraigned at the International Criminal Court over the destruction of historical artefacts.

Timbuktu had 16 mausoleums which were home to the tombs of great thinkers and scholars who made the city a great centre of learning and Islamic scholarship in the 14th century. They were part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List and were revered by many as the resting place of great men who contributed a lot to the propagation of Islam.

In 2012, Mahdi who comes from a village only a hundred kilometres away from Timbuktu joined forces with Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to launch an attack on the city. After Timbuktu fell, the rebels imposed strict Sharia law which banned the smoking of cigarettes, alcohol and even music.

Girls were banned from attending school and women were largely restricted to their homes. The mausoleums were regarded as relics of idolatry which must be pulled down. Fouteen out of the city’s 16 mausoleums were consequently destroyed by Mahdi and his allies.

Today, Mahdi was largely remorseful as he entered his plea saying he was doing so with “deep regret and great pain.” He even called on Muslims around the world to refrain from actions similar to his as they would not lead humanity to any good.

Mahdi indicated that he expected a term in prison which he says would be “a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me.”

His admission of guilt now appears to have significantly reduced the work of both the prosecution and defence. His lawyers are now working on how to secure a reduced sentence from a possible maximum term of 30 years.