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May backs Javid over possible death penalty for Islamic State ‘Beatles’

The Home Secretary was accused of breaching Britain’s long-standing opposition to capital punishment.

Theresa May backed the decision not to seek assurances from Washington that two Britons suspected of fighting for Islamic State will not face execution if extradited to the US for terror crimes, Downing Street has said.

The decision of Home Secretary Sajid Javid not to seek “death penalty assurances” in the case of two suspected members of IS’s so-called “Beatles” cell sparked uproar in Westminster.

MPs accused him of breaching the UK’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty, while the Government’s former reviewer of anti-terror legislation Lord Carlile branded the move “extraordinary”.

Amnesty International said Mr Javid was “leaving the door wide open to charges of hypocrisy and double standards” by failing to seek “cast-iron assurances” from the US that the two men will not be executed.

Home Office minister Ben Wallace was summoned to answer questions from alarmed MPs in the Commons, where he insisted that there had been no other cases of the requirement being waived since he took on the security brief in 2016.

He promised to inform MPs if earlier instances came to light.

Asked whether the Prime Minister approved of Mr Javid’s position, set out in a letter to US attorney general Jeff Sessions, a Downing Street spokeswoman initially said only that Mrs May was “made aware” of it, adding that the Government opposes the death penalty “in all circumstances as a matter of principle”.

But Number 10 later shifted its line, telling reporters that Mrs May “supports” the Home Secretary’s handling of the case and hopes it will end with the two men remaining in prison for the rest of their lives.

I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case Home Secretary Sajid Javid

“The ultimate aim for all of us in our discussions with the US is to make sure that these men face the rest of their lives in prison. That is also what the victims’ families want,” said the Downing Street spokeswoman.

“In this instance, after careful and considered advice, the Government took the decision not to seek assurances. That was deemed by ministers to be appropriate.

“The Prime Minister was aware of these plans and supports the way that these are being handled.”

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are said to have been members of a brutal four-man cell of IS executioners in Syria and Iraq, responsible for killing a series of high-profile Western captives, including British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Nicknamed after the 1960s band because of their British accents, the cell is also believed to have included Mohammed Emwazi – known as “Jihadi John” – who was killed in a US air strike in 2015, and Aine Davis, who has been jailed in Turkey.

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Alexanda Kotey, one of two Britons suspected of having been part of the Islamic State extremist group dubbed ‘The Beatles’ who were captured by Kurdish militia fighters in January (ITV News/PA)

Kotey and Elsheikh, who are understood to have been stripped of their British citizenship, were captured in January, sparking a row over whether they should be returned to the UK for trial or face justice in another jurisdiction.

In his letter, obtained by The Daily Telegraph, Mr Javid told Mr Sessions the UK “does not currently intend to request, nor actively encourage” the transfer of the pair to Britain.

Signalling that the UK was prepared to drop assurances relating to the death penalty, Mr Javid said: “All assistance and material will be provided on the condition that it may only be used for the purpose sought in that request, namely a federal criminal investigation or prosecution.

“Furthermore, 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.”

The letter sparked alarm in Westminster, with shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti saying that Mr Javid appeared to have “secretly and unilaterally abandoned Britain’s opposition to the death penalty”.

She warned: “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.”

Lord Carlile described the move as “a dramatic change of policy by a minister, secretly, without any discussion in Parliament”.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Sir Ed Davey said: “The use of the death penalty – no matter the crimes involved – is wrong. By refusing to stand up to Donald Trump’s administration on this issue, Sajid Javid has abdicated his responsibility to uphold fundamental human rights.”

David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Opposing the death penalty is one of the fundamental principles that underpins our country’s commitment to human rights. There is no conflict between these values and ensuring that justice is served.

“We believe the Home Secretary should first have sought assurances that the death penalty will not be used in this case. The same basic human rights should apply to everyone and they must be exercised without exception.

“Failing to do so risks setting a dangerous precedent and jeopardises our ability to hold other countries to account for human rights breaches.”

Mr Wallace assured the Commons that ministers have complied with the European Convention on Human Rights and due process.

But he was heckled by opposition MPs as he said it would be “bizarre and not justice to the victims” if the authorities “simply let them free to roam around the United Kingdom” because of concerns about sharing evidence with the US.

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Screen grab from footage issued by Islamic State militants of the British extremist Mohammed Emwazi, known by the nickname ‘Jihadi John’ (PA)

Mr Foley’s mother Diane said she was opposed to the death penalty, warning it would make the two men “martyrs in their twisted ideology”.

“I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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