The Home Secretary has been accused of “secretly” abandoning the UK’s long-held opposition to the death penalty, after telling the US he would not oppose the execution of two Britons accused of being members of Islamic State.
In a leaked letter, Sajid Javid told US Attorney General Jeff Sessions the UK would not demand a “death penalty assurance” in the ongoing cases of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.
Both men are said to have been members of the brutal four-man “Beatles” cell of Isis executioners in Syria and Iraq, responsible for killing a series of high-profile western captives.
The shadow Attorney General, Shami Chakrabarti, said not upholding the demand meant Britain was “encouraging this grave human rights abuse” at a time when it should be “persuading countries like the US and Iran to drop” executions.
“Sajid Javid appears to have secretly and unilaterally abandoned Britain’s opposition to the death penalty,” she said.
“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.”
Mohammed Emwazi, the killer nicknamed Jihadi John, is also said to have been part of the group.
He was killed in a US air strike in 2015 and appeared in a number of videos in which captives, including British aid workers David Haines, Alan Henning and US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were killed.
On Monday, Foley’s mother, Diane, said she was opposed to the death penalty.
“I am very against that. I think that would just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives.”
The UK Government reiterated its commitment to the opposition of the death penalty “in all circumstances” as recently as January, when Foreign Office Minister of State, Alistair Burt, tweeted about Israel’s use of the punishment.
The accused, who are understood to have been stripped of their British citizenship, were captured in January, sparking a row over whether they should be returned to the UK for trial or face justice in another jurisdiction.
On Monday afternoon Labour’s Diane Abbott posed an urgent question on the matter.
Responding, Minister of State for Security, Ben Wallace, said the Government would not comment further on the “ongoing and sensitive” case in order to “protect the integrity of the criminal investigation” but insisted its position had not changed.
Abbott responded: “In an increasingly dangerous and unstable world one of our strengths as a country is a willingness to stand up unflinchingly for human rights - it is a key aspect of our soft power.”
She added it was not possible to be a “little bit in favour” of the death penalty, adding: “Either we offer consistent opposition or we don’t.”
“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.”
Wallace, in his reply, said nobody was extraditing anyone before saying of Kotey and Elsheikh: “We’re not talking about UK citizens.”
In the leaked letter, obtained by the Daily Telegraph, Javid said the UK “does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage” the transfer of Kotey and Elsheikh to Britain.
Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Advocacy and Programmes, said in a statement: “This is a deeply worrying development. The Home Secretary must unequivocally insist that Britain’s long-standing position on the death penalty has not changed and seek cast iron assurances from the US that it will not be used.
“While the alleged crimes of Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh are appalling, the UK’s principled opposition to the cruelty of the death penalty isn’t something it should compromise.
“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.”