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In leaked letter, home secretary says UK won't block death penalty for IS 'Beatles'

Sajid Javid said he believed a death penalty assurance was not needed, and that UK would not 'oppose' the pair's incarceration at Guantanamo
El Shafee Elsheikh, right, and Alexanda Kotey were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria in January (Reuters)

UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid signalled in a leaked letter that the UK may not oppose the death penalty against two former Britons held in Syria and due to be deported to the US for trial, the Telegraph revealed on Monday.

The letter referred to the two IS members and former British citizens, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who were captured by US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria in January after allegedly belonging to an IS cell known for brutally executing high-profile Western hostages in Syria in 2014-15.

Javid, in a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions dated 22 June, said that he believed a death penalty assurance was not needed in the case of the IS pair, and that Britain will not “formally oppose” their incarceration at the notorious Guantanamo prison.

"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," Javid said.

The men are accused of belonging to the so-called IS "Beatles" cell, led by Mohammed Emwazi - also known as Jihadi John - who was killed in 2015 by a US air strike in Syria.

Javid’s comments have been criticised for signalling a departure from a long-held UK position against the death penalty.

Amnesty International condemned the letter on Monday as “a deeply worrying development”.

"While the alleged crimes of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are appalling, the UK's principled opposition to the cruelty of the death penalty isn't something it should compromise,” said Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of advocacy and programmes.

“A failure to seek assurances on this case seriously jeopardises the UK’s position as a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and its work encouraging others to abolish the cruel, inhuman and degrading practice,” she added.

In statements to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday, Lord Carlile, the former reviewer of terrorism legislation, said the letter signalled “a dramatic change of policy by a minister, secretly, without any discussion in parliament”.

He added: “Britain has always said that it will pass information and intelligence, in appropriate cases, provided there is no death penalty. That is a decades-old policy and it is not for the home secretary to change that policy.”

Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, the US journalist executed by the cell in 2014, told the Today Programme that she opposed the use of the death penalty if the IS pair were convicted.

“I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives. That would be my preference,” she said.

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