The Hague (AFP) - War crimes judges are poised to make legal history on Thursday with a ruling on compensation for the destruction of fabled shrines in the Malian town of Timbuktu, an act ordered by a now-repentant jihadist.
The perpetrator, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, was jailed last September for nine years for ordering the 2012 attack on the venerated landmarks.
Thursday's decision will determine reparations for victims.
Jihadists used pickaxes and bulldozers against nine mausoleums and the centuries-old door of the Sidi Yahya mosque, part of a golden age of Islam.
Timbuktu, founded by Tuareg tribes between the fifth and 12th centuries, has been nicknamed "the city of 333 saints," referring to the number of Muslim sages buried there.
During a halcyon period in the 15th and 16th century, the city was revered as a centre of Islamic learning -- but for 21st-century fanatics, its moderate form of Islam was idolatrous.
The assault on a world heritage site triggered global opprobrium, but also led to legal precedent.
Mahdi's case was the first to come before the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) as a crime of cultural destruction.
Jailing him sent a strong warning that destroying cultural heritage would not go unpunished, and reparations will aim to "alleviate the lasting imprints" of the crime, said Alina Balta at Tilburg University's International Victimology Institute.
- Compensation question -
According to the court's 1998 founding accord, the Rome Statute, judges can determine that victims are entitled to reparations including "restitution, compensation and rehabilitation."
The court can also hand out an order directly against a convicted person, demanding similar reparations.
The type and level of compensation that will awarded on Thursday will be closely scrutinised, given concern about whether substantial funds can be secured, and the time it will take to reach victims.
The security situation in northern Mali "poses serious challenges," the Trust Fund for Victims, an agency that will implement the judges' order, has warned.
It has also pointed to a dilemma -- the risk in the future that rumours of hefty compensation could provide an "incentive" for similar attacks in poor countries with cultural treasures.
The reparations will only be the second such award in the history of the court since it began work in 2002.
In March, the ICC awarded symbolic damages of $250 (212 euros) to each of the 297 victims of former Congolese warlord Germain Katanga, who is serving 12 years for a 2003 attack on a village.
The court estimated the damage caused in the attack at $3.7 million, and found Katanga liable for $1 million of that total -- but it also acknowledged he was penniless.
Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, one of the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups which seized territory in northern Mali before being mostly chased out by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.
A former teacher and Islamic scholar, he was the head of the so-called Hisbah or "Manners Brigade."
The slight, bespectacled Malian pleaded guilty to the crime and apologised for it.
He said he had been overtaken by "evil spirits" and urged Muslims not to follow his example.
The shrines have now been restored using traditional methods and local masons, in a project financed by several countries as well as UNESCO.