An agreement to help the US prosecute two British Isis suspects who could ultimately face the death penalty is not unprecedented, the UK’s security minister has revealed.
Ben Wallace said that although the process of mutual legal assistance in the cases of El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey had been temporarily suspended pending a high court challenge, there were two previous occasions in recent years when the government did not seek assurances regarding the death penalty when cooperating with foreign states.
Elsheikh and Kotey, who were raised in Britain, are alleged to have been part of an Isis terrorism cell, some of whom were known as “the Beatles”, which is thought to have carried out 27 beheadings of US and UK citizens in Isis-held territory. Both have since been deprived of their UK citizenship and are being held by Kurdish forces in Syria.
On Wednesday, which was theWorld Day Against the Death Penalty, the Foreign Office minister for human rights, Tariq Ahmad, put out a statement declaring: “We reaffirm the UK’s long-standing policy to oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.
“The death penalty undermines human dignity, there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value, and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreparable.”
But on Tuesday evening in a written parliamentary reply Wallace, belatedly answering a question the Green MP Caroline Lucas asked in late July, asserted that the UK had recently cooperated with foreign states in other cases involving the death penalty. He declined to identify the countries or individuals concerned.
Lucas had asked whether there was a precedent for supporting the trial of those who might later face execution. In his answer, Wallace said: “A review of available records dating back to 2001 has been undertaken and I can confirm that this has occurred on two previous occasions that have been identified, under successive governments.
“Due to the potential to harm ongoing criminal investigations or future prosecutions, and the confidentiality attached to mutual legal assistance, it would not be appropriate to share further information.”
Lucas said: “The UK abolished the barbaric practice of capital punishment more than 50 years ago. It’s deeply disturbing to think successive governments have effectively outsourced the death penalty to other countries.
“The cases of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are a disgrace – but Elsheikh’s mother is now challenging the way her son was treated by the government in court.
“Ministers must urgently explain the reasons they failed on two more occasions to seek assurances that people would not be killed by foreign states, and allow those involved to seek justice.”
Dan Dolan, of the anti-capital punishment charity Reprieve, said: “Categorical opposition to the death penalty is central to Britain’s global reputation for defending human rights. The government’s published policy is to oppose capital punishment ‘in all circumstances as a matter of principle’.
“If this is to be worth the paper it’s printed on, there can be no caveats or get-out clauses. Each time the government makes an exception, it dramatically weakens Britain’s claim to take a moral lead in the world.”