Two captured British Isis militants should not be given the “satisfaction” of the death penalty in America, one of their former hostages has said.
Nicolas Henin, a French journalist tortured by the terror cell known as The Beatles, joined calls for Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh to face trial amid suggestions they could be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
In a leaked letter, the home secretary reversed a decades-old British policy of refusing to extradite people to countries that use capital punishment without an assurance that it will not be used.
Sajid Javid reportedly said the UK “does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage” the transfer of Kotey and Elsheikh to Britain from Syria, where they are currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alongside thousands of other foreign fighters.
“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,” he told the US attorney general in a document obtained by The Daily Telegraph.
“We believe that a successful federal prosecution in the US is more likely to be possible because of differences in your statute book and the restrictions on challenges to the route by which defendants appear in US courts.”
Mr Javid promised to hand over material from a four year investigation by counterterror police to be used in a federal criminal investigation or prosecution.
Mr Henin urged authorities not to bow to any public pressure against Kotey and Elsheikh being given a fair trial.
He told The Independent that the death penalty would be “short sighted”, adding that: “Of course the public must be protected from the risk these people pose, they must be neutralised.
“But they also must be neutralised in a proper manner, or it will be further recruitment [for Isis], and if it makes other people revolted by their treatment then it is eventually counterproductive.”
Mr Henin said that Kotey, Elsheikh and other Isis militants had claimed they “love death” and were actively seeking to be martyred.
“The basic principle in war is that you will never give your enemy satisfaction,” he added. “If they want to die you should not give them that.”
Mr Henin was freed just four months before the group beheaded his former cellmate James Foley in 2014, starting a string of gory murders including those of British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, as well as Americans Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff.
Their executioner, Mohammed Emwazi, became known as “Jihadi John” and was killed in a drone strike, while his fellow “Beatle” Aine Davis is imprisoned in Turkey.
The remaining two members of the cell – 34-year-old Kotey and 30-year-old Elsheikh – remained at large until they were caught by the SDF in January following battles to reclaim Isis territory around its defacto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
Mr Henin said the families of their American victims were “very active” in lobbying the US administration and would not accept them being detained at Guantanamo without trial.
“There must be a trial,” he added. “For me it’s totally fine to kill them on the battlefield, it is the reality of war, but after a trial and the judicial process I object to it… it’s not acceptable to mimic your enemy.”
Diane Foley, the mother of murdered American journalist James Foley, called for Kotey and Elsheikh to undergo a criminal trial either in the US or in an international court.
“I feel it’s very important that they be tried in an open, transparent way so that all can know the crime they’ve committed and anyone else they might implicate, because it certainly wasn’t just them,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I am very against the death penalty, I think that would just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology… I feel that’s easy for them.
“I would like them to be held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Ms Foley said she believes her son “always wanted justice in the fairest sense” and would have felt the same.
Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, described the home secretary’s letter as “extraordinary”.
“They should not be given the opportunity of being turned into martyrs, but the home secretary extraordinarily is trying to change British policy without any consultation with parliament,” he said on Today.
“It flies in the face of what has been said repeatedly and recently by the Home Office… Britain has always said that it will pass information and intelligence in appropriate cases, provided there is no death penalty. That is a decades-old policy and is not for the home secretary to change it.”
Amnesty International UK called the U-turn a “deeply worrying development” and said Britain must not compromise on its blanket opposition to the death penalty.
Allan Hogarth, its head of advocacy, said: “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.
“At a time when the rest of the world is moving increasingly to abolition, this reported letter marks a huge backward step. By refusing to seek assurances on this case, the home secretary is leaving the door wide open to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.”
Labour’s shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, told The Independent the home secretary “appears to have secretly and unilaterally abandoned Britain’s opposition to the death penalty”.
“By doing so he is not just playing with the lives of these particular terrorists but of those other Britons – including potentially innocent ones – all over the world,” she added.
“Just as we should be persuading countries like the US and Iran to drop the death penalty, Mr Javid appears to be encouraging this grave human rights abuse.”
Originally from London, Kotey and Elsheikh are believed to have been among the Isis fighters stripped of British citizenship for the “public good”.
Hostages have told of their brutality, which included torture, waterboarding, electric shocks, mock executions and crucifixions.
Both men were declared “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” by the US State Department ahead of their capture, with official documents naming them as members of the “The Beatles” and saying the cell had beheaded more than 27 hostages and tortured many more.
Kotey also allegedly acted as an Isis recruiter responsible for drawing in several other British nationals.
The Home Office refused to comment on the leaked document but a spokesman said: “We continue to engage with the US government on this issue, as we do on a range of national security issues, and in the context of our joint determination to tackle international terrorism and combat violent extremism.
“The UK government’s position on Guantanamo Bay is that the detention facility should close.”
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