The UK government has said it will not object to the United States seeking the death penalty for two suspected British members of ISIL, drawing criticism by human rights groups and opposition politicians.
Security Minister Ben Wallace on Monday said Britain would be willing to waive its long-standing objection to executions in the case of captured fighters, Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh.
“In this instance, and after carefully considered advice, the government took the rare decision not to require assurances in this case,” Wallace told the lower house of Parliament in response to a leaked letter from Home Secretary Sajid Javid to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965.
Kotey and El-Sheikh are suspected to have been a part of a group of four British members of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
They were allegedly responsible for killing several captives, including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines.
Amnesty International called the decision 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,” a statement by Amnesty said.
“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,” it added.
“Capital punishment is the ultimate denial of life – it is always cruel and unnecessary, it doesn’t deter crime, and it means that rehabilitation is not an option.”
Andrew Stroehlein, European Media Director for Human Rights Watch, also denounced the plan.
“We don’t oppose state murder because the criminals have behaved humanely. We oppose state murder because we behave humanely. That’s the difference between terrorism and civilisation,” he said in a response to the news.
Indeed. We don't oppose state murder because the criminals have behaved humanely. We oppose state murder because we behave humanely. That's the difference between terrorism and civilisation. https://t.co/g2BJInqEFX
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) July 23, 2018
The Death Penalty Project, an organisation that provides free assistance to those facing execution, called the decision “deeply concerning with potentially very wide consequences”.
UK is a critical voice against #deathpenalty on the global stage – any attempt to roll back on policy of complete opposition to capital punishment is deeply concerning w/ potentially very wide consequences @sajidjavid https://t.co/sP9Ydi30RN
— DeathPenaltyProject (@DeathPenaltyP) July 23, 2018
Several British members of parliament also expressed their opposition.
“We have had cross-party consensus against the death penalty for more than 50 years in this country,” David Lammy, an MP for the opposition Labour Party, 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,” Labour’s Shami Chakrabati said in parliament.
Another Labour MP, Andrew Adonis, said he “does not support death penalty in any circumstances”.
I don’t support death penalty in any circumstances – this is not the tail end of the middle ages – & Sajid Javid should not be condoning it. Little support in Parliament for what he is doing
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) July 23, 2018
Kotey and El-Sheikh were captured earlier this year by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) when the pair tried to escape territory formerly held by ISIL.
A third member of the group, Mohammed Emwazim, was killed in an air raid in 2015.
The mother of murdered journalist James Foley has previously stated she does not support the death penalty in the case of the killing of her son.
Diane Foley said she would prefer to see those responsible in prison for the rest of their lives.