Britain’s interior minister has suggested the UK will not block a death sentence on two captured IS fighters dubbed “The Beatles” if they are tried in the US. The UK usually calls for protection of its citizens.
Britain will not seek the usual assurances that its citizens facing trial in the United States do not receive the death penalty in the case of suspected “Islamic State” (IS) fighters Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, according to a report in a British newspaper published on Monday.
Kotey and Elsheikh are suspected of being members of a four-man IS gang dubbed “The Beatles,” which was notorious for videotaping its beheadings of high-profile Western captives. The two men were captured in Syria by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in January and are still being held by the group. Britain and the United States have discussed how and where they should face justice.
According to a leaked letter written by Home Secretary Sajid Javid to the US attorney general, excerpts of which were published in the Telegraph, the UK wants “these individuals to face justice in the most appropriate jurisdiction which maximizes collective chances of a successful prosecution.”
Javid appeared to waive Britain’s longstanding opposition to the death penalty in order to allow the two suspects face trial in the United States.
“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,” he wrote in the letter last month.
However, he added that the decision did “not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally.”
‘Higher profile’ suspects
In the transcript published by the newspaper, Javid said Britain considered the two suspects distinct from the “broader strategic issue of detained foreign terrorist fighters” for three reasons:
- “Firstly, there is intelligence implicating these two individuals in the kidnap and murder of a number of individuals, including three American and two British citizens.”
- “Secondly, these individuals have a significantly higher profile than other detainees in Syria due to their crimes and will be held up as an example of how we treat and deal with alleged ISIS [an alternative acronym for IS] fighters.”
- “Thirdly, we need to deliver justice for the victims’ relatives, who have been vocal in their demands that both detainees face the rest of their lives in prison following a fair and transparent trial.”
Fearing a precedent
Prime Minister Theresa May echoed Javid’s wishes for a successful proscecution.
May’s spokeswoman said, “We are continuing to engage with the US government on this issue and our priority is to make sure that these men face criminal prosecution.” She acknowledged Britian’s long-held opposition to the death penalty.
Human rights group Amnesty International criticized the apparent wavering of Britain’s stance in this case, tweeting that UK opposition to the death penalty should not be compromised even in view of the “appalling” nature of the two men’s alleged crimes.
The most notorious member of the cell — dubbed “The Beatles” on account of their British accents — was Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John,” who appeared in videos showing the murders of US journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and other hostages. Emwazi is believed to have been killed in a US-British missile strike in 2015.
The mother of James Foley told BBC radio she did not want the suspects to be executed if found guilty, because it “would just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology.” Amnesty International’s Allan Hogarth said the case “seriously jeopardizes the UK’s position as a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.”
Britain’s defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, said earlier this year that he did not want the two suspects to be returned to the UK because “they are no longer part of Britain.”