By Agence France-Presse
Britain said Monday it was sharing intelligence to help the United States bring to trial two British fighters captured in Syria, known as the “Beatles,” and sparked outrage by saying it would not block the death penalty.
Security Minister Ben Wallace told MPs that a British trial was unlikely for Alexanda Amon Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, who were picked up earlier this year by US-backed Syrian forces.
He also said the pair were not UK citizens, without giving further details. News reports had said that the government had unusually stripped them of their nationality.
But the failure to seek assurances from Washington that the two men would not face the death penalty drew anger from lawmakers of all parties, while Amnesty International called it “deeply worrying”.
“We do not think we have the evidence here to try them in the United Kingdom… it is likely there is a trial that is carried out in the United States,” Wallace told the House of Commons.
He added: “When the request came in for sharing of evidence, this government took the decision — rare as it is — to share that evidence without seeking assurances.”
Kotey and Sheikh were part of a four-member kidnapping gang within the Islamic State group dubbed “The Beatles” by their captives due to their heavy British accents.
They were notorious for videotaping beheadings and are believed to have killed American journalist James Foley and many Western aid workers.
Wallace said assurances about the death penalty might “get in the way” of a future trial, but added: “We’re not talking about UK citizens.”
He also said that “we should not forget that the crimes that we’re talking about involve the beheading and videoing of those beheading dozens of innocent people by one of the most abhorrent organisations walking this earth.”
Don’t make them martyrs
The fate of the pair was discussed in a letter by British Home Secretary Sajid Javid to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which was leaked to the Daily Telegraph.
The decision not to demand assurances on the death penalty sparked widespread anger and an emergency Commons debate on Monday.
One Labour MP accused the government of having “unilaterally ripped up” years of opposition to capital punishment around the world, while a former minister in the ruling Conservatives said it was a “major departure”.
Amnesty spokesman Allan Hogarth said: “A failure to seek assurances on this case seriously jeopardizes the UK’s position as a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.”
Foley’s mother Diane told BBC radio that her son’s killers should go to jail but said putting them to death “would just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology”.
Wallace insisted: “Our longstanding position on the use of the death penalty has not changed.”
He added that Britain “will not share information with the United States if those individuals were going to end up in Guantanamo Bay”, the US detention camp on Cuba.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) caught Kotey in January as he tried to flee Syria for Turkey, while a US defense official said in February that Sheikh had also been captured by Syrian rebel forces.
Wallace said: “The individuals that we’re talking about, or foreign fighters at the moment in general, are currently held by non-state actors in Syria.
“That is a big challenge for all European states and indeed the US about how those people are brought back.”