UK may not oppose US death penalty for ISIS 'Beatles', official says in letter

The UK government has said it would not be opposed to two members of a British ISIS cell known as "the Beatles" being...

Posted: Jul. 23, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Jul. 23, 2018 1:52 PM

The UK government has said it would not be opposed to two members of a British ISIS cell known as "the Beatles" being executed in the US, prompting allegations it had undermined its longstanding opposition to the death penalty abroad.

In a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, disclosed in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper Monday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said that Britain would not demand "assurances" that two members of the terror cell would not receive the death penalty in return for the UK sharing intelligence about them.

The leaked letter, dated June 22, refers to the case of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh -- part of a four-man ISIS cell nicknamed "the Beatles" for their British accents -- who are believed to be responsible for beheading high-profile Western hostages in Syria and Iraq.

Capital punishment is illegal in the UK and the British government opposes its use abroad. The UK typically does not cooperate with foreign jurisdictions in cases where a death sentence could be imposed, unless written assurances are provided that it would not be sought or implemented.

In the leaked letter, Javid said he was willing to make an exception in the case of Kotey and Elsheikh: "I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought."

"As you are aware, it is the long held position of the UK to seek death penalty assurances, and our decision in this case does not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally, nor the UK Government's stance on the global abolition of the death penalty," the letter continued.

The opposition Labour party invoked parliamentary procedure to force a discussion on the issue in the House of Commons on Monday. The party's home affairs spokesman, Diane Abbott, said the UK could not be "a little bit in favor" of the death penalty: "Either we offer consistent opposition or we don't," she said.

Replying, security minister Ben Wallace said the UK government's policy on the death penalty had not changed, and that it did allow exceptions in rare circumstances. Sharing intelligence with the US would increase the chance of the men facing trial, he said.

Wallace also effectively confirmed previous reports that Kotey and Elsheikh had been stripped of their British nationalities. "We are not talking about UK citizens," he said.

Among their victims was beheaded American journalist James Foley, whose mother Diane told the BBC's Today program that the death penalty would "just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology."

"I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives," she said.

Wrangle over foreign fighters

The two ISIS fighters, whose cell was fronted by Mohammed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, were captured in January and are now being held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Emwazi was killed in a drone strike in 2015.

The pair are among dozens of foreign-born ISIS fighters in the region seemingly left in limbo as their countries of origin wrangle over who should take responsibility for them.

Indeed, while Javid's letter says the UK is "committed to assisting the US with a federal prosecution of Kotey and El-Sheikh," it also says the UK does not intend to request their transfer to the UK for prosecution.

The Home Secretary added that given the high profile of the fighters, they could also be "held up as an example of how we treat and deal with alleged ISIS fighters."

The group gained notoriety in 2014 and 2015 for a string of brutal propaganda videos, in which they demanded millions of dollars in ransom to spare the lives of foreign hostages, many of them journalists and aid workers. Few of the ransoms were met, and instead the hostages were beheaded.

Fourth cell member Aine Davis was convicted of being a member of a terrorist organization by a court in Turkey in 2017 and jailed for seven-and-a-half years.

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