Ahmad al-Mahdi is the first defendant to plead guilty to coordinating the destruction of nine religious monuments and a mosque door in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
At the opening of his trial for war crimes in The Hague, Mr al-Mahdi was the first defendant to plead guilty at the international criminal court (ICC) and has also apologised to Mali and mankind for destroying the historic artefacts.
The destruction of the monuments that were of great religious and cultural importance, occurred in 2012, when Timbuktu was controlled by rebels and members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The mausoleums were admired for their stunning architecture and precious historical features.
As reported by the Guardian, the defendant expressed his “deep regret” to the people of Timbuktu, and could be facing up to 11 years in jail.
“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way,” said Mr al-Mahdi.
“Those who forgive me will be rewarded by the almighty. I would like to make them a solemn promise that this was the first and the last wrongful act I will ever commit. All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.”
Mr al-Mahdi was recruited to head al-Qaida, eradicating structures that looked like mud huts but were in fact tombs that were the embodiment of Malian history, captured in tangible form.
The former civil servant from the Timbuktu area admitted to dictating the destruction of shrines of the 333 saints that the city is well known for and in some cases the defendant wielded the pickaxe himself.
Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor of the court said: “He was fully aware of the importance of the mausoleums, and he showed determination and focus in his supervision of operations.”
Ms Bensouda also said that the trail would support reconciliation in ancient and vibrant city, serving as a deterrent.
She said: “It brings truth and catharsis. It is crucial for Timbuktu’s victims.”
Once a city of great learning, Timbuktu was regarded to be on par with Florence during the Italian renaissance. The recent overrunning of the city by rebels saw the imposing of sharia law, the banning of music, while al-Qaida whipped those who did not adhere to their code.
Throughout the centuries, attacks on beautiful art and architecture have been a routine weapon in the hand of extremists.
But in response to this case being classed as a war crime, there has been much debate. Many have argued that because art is destroyed all the time, by neglect, ignorance and bad restorations, it cannot be placed in the war crime category - one that includes the death of many civilians.