UK 'drops' death penalty opposition for ISIS ‘Beatles’

So-called "Beatles" fighters Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El Sheikh were captured in Syria this year

A combination picture shows Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, who the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claim are British nationals, in these undated handout pictures in Amouda, Syria released February 9, 2018. Syrian Democratic Forces/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Preparations for the trial of two arrested members of an ISIS terrorist cell in the United States are under way, after the UK government confirmed reports suggesting that Britain could provide intelligence to the prosecution even if the accused face the death penalty.

Leaked documents obtained by The Daily Telegraph newspaper include a letter written by Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid that said the UK would share information with US authorities on Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El Sheikh, two of the four foreign fighters that made up the "Beatles" terrorist group in Syria.

Speaking in parliament on Monday afternoon, Home Office minister Ben Wallace confirmed the reports telling lawmakers that the government had taken "the rare decision not to require assurances in this case".

In a leaked letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions dated June 22, 2018, Mr Javid said that London would not be seeking death penalty assurances in the case of the Beatles fighters, contrary to a long-standing British policy not to co-operate with death penalty cases.

"I have instructed my officials to set out the terms of our assistance and to work with your officials to action the request,” the letter said.

"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."

Mr Javid also shared concerns that the UK’s terrorism laws were not strong enough to ensure a successful prosecution, adding that American laws would be more effective.

Another document said the UK would not raise any formal opposition if Kotey and El Sheikh, who previously held British citizenship, were sent to Guantanamo Bay detention centre without trial.

A spokeswoman for British prime minister Theresa May said she was "aware" of the plans and "supports the way that these are being handled".

The move is a significant shift from previous statements by ministers that the pair be tried in British courts for their actions abroad.

The government faced criticism from both Conservative and Labour party lawmakers on Monday afternoon.

Former Conservative minister Andrew Mitchell said that human rights applied to everyone "bad or good".

While shadow home secretary Diane Abbott accused the government of hypocrisy saying the UK could not be a “little bit” in favour of the death penalty.

Earlier on Monday, the UK's main opposition Labour Party accused Mr Javid of encouraging a "grave human rights abuse".

"Sajid Javid appears to have secretly and unilaterally abandoned Britain's opposition to the death penalty. By doing so he is not just playing with the lives of these particular terrorists, but those of other Britons –including potentially innocent ones – all over the world," said Labour's Shami Chakrabarti in a statement released on Monday.

"Just as we should be persuading countries like the US and Iran to drop the death penalty, Sajid Javid appears to be encouraging this grave human rights abuse."

Nicknamed the Beatles because of their British accents, they gained notoriety after executing and torturing western hostages in Syria. The fighters were responsible for the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig.


Read more:

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Kotey and El Sheikh are being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, having been captured attempting to flee the war-torn country in January this year.

The leader of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi – nicknamed "Jihadi John" by the British press – was killed by a US drone strike in 2015. The fourth member of the group, Aine Keskey Davis, was arrested and convicted in Turkey last year and sentenced to seven years in prison.

The British newspaper quoted an unnamed source from the UK’s Home Office that said the government had verbally warned the US not to send the remaining members of the cell to Guantanamo.

"We have proactively made it clear to the US that while we will share for the purposes of a criminal trial, we will not for Guantanamo Bay," the source said.

A spokesperson from the Home Office said it did not comment on leaked documents.

“We continue to engage with the US government on this issue, as we do on a range of national security issues and in the context of our joint determination to tackle international terrorism and combat violent extremism,” the spokesperson said.

“The UK government’s position on Guantanamo Bay is that the detention facility should close.”