Spare them the death penalty, say bishops

24 July 2018

Sending accused to their deaths ‘is exactly what IS would do’

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Alexanda Kotey (left) and Shafee El-Sheikh, in an image released by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, in February

Alexanda Kotey (left) and Shafee El-Sheikh, in an image released by the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, in February

BISHOPS have condemned the Government’s decision not to seek assurances that two jihadists who grew up in the UK will be spared the death penalty.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said on Monday that executing the Islamic State (IS) pair would be “tantamount to cheapening human life in exactly the way that IS does”.

In a letter to the US Attorney General, printed in The Daily Telegraph on Monday and dated 22 June, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, agreed to provide intelligence to help prosecute the two men, Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh, both of whom have held British citizenship, understood to have been revoked.

He wrote: “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. I have instructed my officials to set out the terms of our assistance and to work with your officials to action the request.

“As you are aware, it is the long held position of the UK to seek death penalty assurances, and our decision in this case does not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally, nor the UK Government’s stance on the global abolition of the death penalty.”

The two men, captured in January while trying to flee Syria, were part of a group of four known as “The Beatles”, because of their British accents (News, 6 March, 2015). The group has been implicated in the beheadings of two American journalists — James Foley and Steven Sotloff (News, 29 August, 2014) — and three aid workers: two British men, David Haines and Alan Hemming (News, 19 September, 2014), and an American, Peter Kassig (News, 24 November, 2014). They are also accused of detaining and torturing Western hostages.

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“We should not forget that the crimes we are talking about involve the beheading, and videoing of the beheading of dozens of innocent people by one of the most abhorrent organisations walking this earth,” the Security Minister, Ben Wallace, told the House of Commons on Monday. “It would be bizarre to say that if we were unable to prosecute them in this country, we should simply let them be free to roam around the United Kingdom. . .”

Senior UK bishops have condemned the move.

“I am very concerned about the apparent change of policy, particularly since the Home Secretary suggests that it is no such thing,” Dr Inge said on Monday. “If the death penalty is wrong, which I believe it is, then it is wrong full stop. To administer it in this case would be tantamount to cheapening human life in exactly the way that ‘IS’ does. There should be no exceptions.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, described it as “a deeply worrying development and one which is to be deplored. We cannot pick and choose which human rights we wish to uphold.”

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said that she had “deep concerns” about the letter, “as it seems to me to contradict the principle which we stand by in this country: that the death penalty is wrong in any circumstance, without exception (a principle with which I personally strongly concur).  This does not only have significance in this particular case but may have far-reaching consequences in in the future.”

“Populism takes many forms, and throwing people — even unrepentant criminals — to the lions is one of them,” wrote the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, on Twitter. “If the life values we hold are worth holding, we should hold them tight.”

On Wednesday, a statement from the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference said that: “even in the most difficult of cases, our nation’s commitment to human rights and dignity including opposition to the death penalty should remain steadfast. Terrorists who have shown no respect for the law should nevertheless be treated with equal rights under the law. We cannot assist prosecutions that might end with an order for execution. . . 

“Those responsible for terrorist offences must be brought to justice, but we must not allow their evil actions and warped ideology to undermine the value our nation places on human rights for all.”

In his letter, Mr Javid expresses concern that the Crown Prosecution Service might not be able to secure a successful prosecution of the two men.

“Ensuring foreign fighters face justice raises a real challenge for all our jurisdictions, however in this instance we believe that a successful federal prosecution in the US is more likely to be possible,” he writes.

On Monday, Mr Wallace said that the “rare decision” had been taken after “carefully considered advice”. He reiterated that “our longstanding position on the use of the death penalty has not changed”, and cited the Government’s overseas, security and justice assistance guidance, which states that: “there will be cases where, as an exception to the general policy and taking into account the specific circumstances, Ministers can lawfully decide that assistance should be provided in the absence of adequate assurances”.

Mr Wallace went on to argue: “All states, including those that oppose the death penalty, use lethal force when they have to do so to keep themselves secure. We risk being seen as hypocrites if we say that we will never make an exception for assurances, while being prepared to use lethal force on the battlefield to kill people without due process. That is the balance that we always have to strike. It is not easy, but we do it to try to keep people safe.”

Conservative MPs were among those who challenged him. “On human rights, we cannot distinguish between good and bad people,” Andrew Mitchell, a former Development Secretary, argued. Dominic Grieve, a former Attorney General, described it as “a major departure from normal policy”.

Ben Emmerson QC, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, told Radio 4 Today on Tuesday that the decision was “unprincipled, incompetent and almost certainly unlawful”.

“Historically it has been the British government’s position in all cases to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances,” he said. “And that has translated to an absolute rule, which is legally enforceable, not to extradite an individual to a country where they are at serious risk of the death penalty without an assurance that the penalty will not be carried out.”

Mr Kotey, born in 1983, grew up in west London. Mr El-Sheikh came to Britain as a child refugee from Sudan, in the 1990s.

In March, Diane Foley, the mother of James Foley, told The Associated Press that she opposed the death penalty for her son’s killers, arguing that it would feed their “desire for martyrdom and heroic afterlife. . . These men do not deserve that. They deserve to be held in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives.”

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Last year, the Home Office reported that, of the 400 foreign fighters who had returned to the UK from Syria and Iraq, 54 had been prosecuted.

Further, a briefing to civil servants, leaked to the Telegraph, states that the Government will not lobby the US not to send the two men to Guantanamo Bay, despite its long-standing position that it should close.

On Monday, Dr Inge said that the treatment of inmates at the detention facility “undermines all the civilised values the USA purported to be fighting for”. The Archbishop of York has previously described the failure to close it as evidence of a society “heading towards George Orwell’s Animal Farm” (News, 24 February 2006).

The Episcopal Church in the United States has opposed the death penalty since 1958, a position reaffirmed at this month’s General Convention, in a resolution which urged members to “advocate for passage of legislation in state legislatures that would abolish the death penalty and commend those Governors who have suspended the death penalty in their states”.

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