It is the first prosecution of this type by the court which is based in The Hague.
Legal proceedings against the suspected Islamist will begin in January.
Mr. Mahdi, a Malian citizen, is accused of ordering his followers to flatten at least nine tombs and the Sidi Yahia mosque that had each been carefully maintained and considered holy since in the Middle Ages. The monuments had been named World Heritage sites by the United Nations. The designation makes their destruction a criminal act.
Prosecutors called al Mahdi the leader of an ‘Islamist morality squad’ called al Hesbah, which carried out the orders of a so-called Islamic court that was formed during the occupation.
The suspected rebel told the court: “My name is Ahmad al Faqi a Mahdi, and I am from the Tuareg tribe. I was born about 40 years ago. I am a graduate of the teachers’ institute in Timbuktu and I was a civil servant in the education department… beginning in 2011.” No plea was entered during the court session.
Meanwhile, in Timbuktu, news of the trial was greeted with jubilation.
“The people of Timbuktu are very, very, very, happy! Very, very, very happy. That man is a criminal!” roared Alhassan Hassaye, the city’s 73-year-old master mud mason. His family had been in charge of replastering the monuments each year since the Middle Ages.
“It shows that we will have justice for what he and his followers did…that there are people who will defend the people of Timbuktu,” Hassaye said.
Ancient monuments have found themselves at risk in recent years, threatened by a generation of jihadists who seek to destroy any structures deemed un-Islamic. In 2001, Afghanistan’s Taliban, allied with al Qaeda, dynamited a pair of sixth-century Buddha statues carved into sandstone cliffs.
In August, the group leveled a fifth-century Catholic monastery in Syria and blew up a 2,000-year-old Roman temple.
But the razing of Timbuktu’s shrines was a particularly heavy loss for the people of the outpost which has long marked a gateway between sub-Saharan Africa and the world, reported Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal.
The mosques, made of mud, and patched up with more mud yearly, constitute some of Africa’s most venerable architecture.
But in 2012, al Qaeda drove into the city and within months, the group and its local allies began bulldozing monuments. The militants shrugged off U.N. threats that they would be tried for war crimes.
The city’s mud masons, however, hatched a plan to rebuild the shrines—using the same clumps of mud that the Islamists had left on the ground.
In 2013, when French paratroopers liberated the city, Western preservationists poured in, offering to help with computer modeling software. This year, the masons completed all 14 of the monuments they said were destroyed.
“It’s for all humanity,” said Mr. Hassaye, the lead mason. “The world has a need for Timbuktu.”