LONDON (AP) — A furor has erupted over leaked documents showing that British officials are not requiring their U.S. counterparts to provide assurances that two alleged British jihadis linked to the Islamic State group will not be executed if they are eventually put on trial in the United States.
The Daily Telegraph said Monday it had seen a letter from Home Secretary Sajid Javid to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning two individuals who have been in custody in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria since their capture in eastern Syria in January.
The two men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were allegedly part of a notorious cell of British jihadis known for their barbaric treatment of hostages. They got the nickname “the Beatles” because of their British accents. The most prominent member of the group, known as “Jihadi John,” was killed in a 2015 drone strike.
In 2014 and 2015, the group held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them. It beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in grisly videos.
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The disclosure prompted an emergency debate in Parliament. Labour Party legislator Diane Abbott called on the government to change course.
“This decision to abandon our principled opposition to the death penalty is both abhorrent and shameful, and I call on ministers even at this late stage to reverse this decision.”
Defending the government’s position, Security Minister Ben Wallace said it would not be right to withhold evidence in such a heinous case.
“We should not forget that the crimes that we’re talking about involve the beheading and videoing of those beheading dozens of innocent people by one of the most abhorrent organizations walking this Earth,” he said.
Wallace said the government risks “being seen as hypocrites” if it never makes an exception in its demands for assurances that the death penalty will not be used but uses lethal force to kill people in battle.
The newspaper says Javid told Sessions that Britain would not seek “assurances” that the two would not be executed, which has caused controversy because Britain is a longstanding opponent of the death penalty. Britain typically does not send prisoners to other countries if they face possible execution.
Amnesty International U.K. spokesman Allan Hogarth said Britain should not abandon its opposition to the death penalty despite the appalling crimes that Kotey and Elsheikh are accused of.
“This is a deeply worrying development,” he said. “The Home Secretary must unequivocally insist that Britain’s longstanding position on the death penalty has not changed and seek cast iron assurances from the U.S. that it will not be used.”
The discussion between the two countries involves Britain providing information that might be used against the two in a future prosecution in the United States.
A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said she is aware of the letter. The spokeswoman says Britain remains opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances but views it as a “priority” to make sure these two men face criminal prosecution.
The two suspects were interviewed by The Associated Press in Kobani, Syria, in March and said they could not get a fair trial. They were captured by the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces amid the collapse of IS.