Jihadist pleads guilty to destroying ancient Timbuktu artifacts

Updated 1:19 PM EDT, Mon August 22, 2016

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In a first, International Criminal Court lists destroying cultural artifacts as a war crime

The city of Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in fifth century

(CNN) —  

In a historic first, the International Criminal Court has classified destroying cultural artifacts as a war crime.

It follows the trial of jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who pleaded guilty Monday to destroying religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali.

“I’m willing to accept the judgment of the chamber, but I will do so with pain and a broken heart,” Mahdi told the court Monday.

Mahdi, also known as “Abou Tourab,” was charged in March in the attacks between June and July 2012. He is believed to be a member of the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine in Mali, which oversaw the ransacking of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Such attacks affect humanity as a whole. We must stand up to the destruction and defacing of our common heritage,” prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in September.

Man faces war crimes charges for destroying Timbuktu monuments

The maximum sentence that Mahdi could face is 30 years.

“It is also my hope that the years I will spend in prison will be source to purge the evil spirit that took me and I will keep my hopes high that the people will be able to forgive me,” Mahdi said at his trial.

“I would like to give a piece of advice to the Muslims in the world not to get involved in the kind of acts that I did because it will give no good to humanity.”

Islamist attacks on historic sites

Like ISIS, which has laid waste to the ancient cities of Nimrud and Palmyra in the Middle East, Ansar Dine declared it would establish an Islamist state and enforce strict Sharia law with little room for cultural or religious tolerance. As a result, the terrorist groups have attacked ancient historic monuments and religious shrines.

Why ISIS destroys antiquities

Timbuktu’s treasure trove

Using pickaxes and iron bars, Ansar Dine destroyed tombs of historic religious figures as well as institutions housing documents from the Middle Ages in Timbuktu.

Seven mausoleums on the UNESCO World Heritage site were targeted in the attack.

Founded in the fifth century, Timbuktu rose to prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries as a center of Islamic learning and helped the spread of Islam across Africa.

CNN’s Margot Haddad, Sheena McKenzie and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.