US backs away from death penalty for Isis ‘Beatles’

The US has told the UK it will rule out pursuing or imposing the death penalty against two British Isis members detained in Iraq if London urgently agrees to share evidence against the duo.

The US wants to prosecute the two British men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are accused of being part of a deadly four-person Isis cell in Syria. They have been dubbed the “Beatles” on account of their British accents.

In a letter dated August 18 and obtained by the Financial Times, US attorney-general William Barr assured Priti Patel, UK home secretary, that Washington would not seek the death penalty for the men if London agreed to Washington’s request for mutual legal assistance.

“If we receive the requested evidence and attendant co-operation from the United Kingdom, we intend to proceed with a United States prosecution,” said Mr Barr in the letter, who urged the UK to provide the evidence “promptly”.

Mr Barr said the “unique circumstances” had compelled the US to make such an offer because time was “of the essence” if the US were to pursue a case against the two men.

The men were captured in 2018 and held in a Syrian prison before being transferred to US military custody in Iraq last autumn. However, they can only be held there until October 15. After that, they will probably be transferred into the Iraqi judicial system, which also provides for the use of the death penalty, according to UK and US officials. The pair deny being involved in the killing of western hostages.

The US first asked the UK to access evidence in its possession five years ago. Although Sajid Javid, the UK home secretary at the time, agreed to the request in 2018, it was subject to a lengthy legal battle in the UK by those opposed to the men potentially facing the death penalty — an option in both the US and Iraq but not in the UK.

Both men were radicalised in the UK but were stripped of their British citizenship in 2018, meaning they cannot return to the UK for any trial, sentencing or prison time. 

Mr Trump and his officials have consistently criticised the UK and other European countries for failing to repatriate fighters who travelled to the Middle East to join Isis. The UK has argued that they present a security risk.

“These men are alleged . . . to have been involved in kidnappings, murders, and other violent crimes against the citizens of our two countries, as well as the citizens of other countries,” Mr Barr wrote. The letter was first reported by Defense One.

Donald Trump last year tweeted the two men were “the worst of the worst”.

A UK official told the FT that London “welcomed this development”.

A Home Office spokesperson said the government’s priority had “always been to protect national security and to deliver justice for the victims and their families”.

“We continue to work closely with international partners to ensure that those who have committed crimes in the name of Daesh [Isis] are brought to justice,” the person added.

Follow @KatrinaManson on Twitter


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