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The ICC’s Al Mahdi case is (also) a political trial, and that’s fine!

Published on August 31, 2016        Author: 

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Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC or Court) in The Hague commenced and concluded a historically short trial against Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi. Al Mahdi was prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally destroying cultural, religious and historic monuments, namely the mausoleums in Timbuktu. This is the first time that the ICC has prosecuted crimes relating to the protection of cultural heritage. It is also a first for the Court to prosecute an Islamic extremist, and the first time that a defendant has pleaded guilty, significantly simplifying and shortening the trial.

After all the ICC’s recent problems with lack of evidence, witness intimidations, and protracted procedures, this short and in all likelihood successful case (the decision is expected on 27 September) can easily be called a resounding win. At the same time, even this case has not escaped criticism (see for example here and here). Why was Al Mahdi only prosecuted for destroying cultural heritage, even though he also allegedly committed murder and rape? And why is the Court spending its scarce resources prosecuting this mid-level militiaman rather than on the leaders behind the violence in Mali?

Questions like these are justified, because the ICC fails to explain why it makes the choices it does. This is a missed opportunity. In recent years, the Court has increasingly been the subject of sharp critique. Scholars, activists, and politicians have accused the ICC of being anti-African, of failing to meet the needs of victims, and of being a “political” court. It is true that the complaint that the Court is “political” cannot always be separated from the self-interest of leaders attempting to evade the Court’s docket. But we should not dismiss this critique, as the Court tends to do. Instead, we should recognize that the ICC is indeed (also) a political court. Read the rest of this entry…