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UK suspends cooperation with US on IS 'Beatles' after death penalty concerns

UK Home Office initially told Washington it would not oppose death penalty for alleged militants
El Shafee Elsheikh, right, and Alexanda Kotey were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria (Reuters)

The UK Home Office has suspended legal cooperation with the United States in the cases of two alleged Islamic State (IS) group militants raised in Britain at the request of the family of one of the suspects over concerns that they may face the death penalty in US courts.

UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid had initially signalled that the UK would not oppose the death penalty against two former Britons, according to a leaked letter revealed by the Daily Telegraph on Monday.

"Yesterday we received a request from the legal representative of the family of one of the suspects to pause the Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) response," the Home Office said in a statement released on Thursday.

"We have agreed to a short-term pause. The government remains committed to bringing these people to justice and we are confident we have acted in full accordance of the law and within the government’s longstanding MLA policy."

The earlier 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 to 2015.

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 would not “formally oppose” their incarceration at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.

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"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 - dubbed "Jihadi John" by the British media after surviving hostages said they had nicknamed their captors after members of the 1960s band - who was killed in 2015 by a US air strike in Syria.

Both Kotey and Elsheikh had been stripped of their British citizenship, the British government confirmed this week. They may be transferred to the United States to be prosecuted.

The United States has already charged one suspected IS member who is a US citizen captured by Kurdish fighters and has been taken to Detroit to face trial.

'Questions of enormous constitutional importance'

The suspension of cooperation with the US came after pressure from Elsheikh's mother, whose lawyers on Tuesday wrote to Javid asking for an immediate undertaking that mutual assistance should not continue to be provided, and threatening to otherwise seek an immediate court injunction.

"On 25th July Government lawyers representing the Home Secretary gave an undertaking that no ‘further’ provision of assistance would take place. The exact time span of the undertaking was not specified in that letter. Since then it has been qualified as constituting at present only a very short term promise," lawyers Birnberg Peirce said in a statement sent to Middle East Eye.

"Today, 26th July, detailed grounds as to why the Minister’s decision was unlawful were sent to the Government’s lawyers, setting out an urgent timetable for the case to be put before the Court, for an application for a full judicial review of the Minister’s decision to be determined by a Court."

The statement also said tht Elsheikh's mother had made clear her "wholesale opposition" to the actions of IS, but requested that "the norms of internationally accepted due process form the basis of any trial of accusations concerning her son".

Javid's letter revealed a "clear and dramatic departure" from the UK's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, and the case raised "questions of enormous constitutional importance", they said.

In a further statement sent to MEE on Friday, Birnberg Peirce said that the government had extended its undertaking that no assistance would be given until determination by a court, or agreement by the parties.

The Home Office now has seven days to respond to the concerns raised in the claim by Elsheikh's mother, it added. 

The Home Office's initial position was condemned by rights groups earlier this week.

"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," Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of advocacy and programmes, said in a statement on Monday.

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