Two British men accused of being part of a deadly Isis cell in Syria have been transferred into US military custody despite a battle in the UK courts about whether they should face trial in the US.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey — members of a four-strong militant group known as “The Beatles” on account of their British accents — have been removed from a Kurdish-controlled prison in north-east Syria just as Turkey began a planned invasion of the territory.
US president Donald Trump said on Thursday the US military had taken pre-emptive action against a breakdown in security around the prison. “In case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, the United States has already taken the 2 ISIS militants tied to beheadings in Syria, known as the Beetles [Sic], out of that country and into a secure location controlled by the US. They are the worst of the worst!”, he tweeted.
However, a legal battle is still under way in Britain over whether the pair — who deny being involved in the killing of western hostages — can be prosecuted in the US, where they may face the death penalty. Both men were radicalised in the UK but were stripped of their British passports in 2018 soon after being captured.
President Trump and his officials have consistently criticised the UK and other European countries for failing to repatriate fighters who travelled to the Middle East to join Isis. While US policy is that radicalised jihadis should be brought back to their countries of origin and tried for their crimes, the UK has consistently opposed this on the basis that such individuals present a security risk on their return.
As a result, the Home Office has taken a tougher line than usual in extradition arrangements. While it is standard practice in US extradition cases for Britain to seek assurances that the death penalty will not be applied, these have not been negotiated in The Beatles case. Mr Elsheikh’s mother, Maha Elgizouli, is now pursuing court action to stop her son being tried in the US unless the death penalty is ruled out. She lost her case in the High Court in January but appealed in the Supreme Court in July and is awaiting a decision.
The Home Office said on Thursday that “it would be inappropriate to comment [on the transfer of the pair] whilst legal proceedings are ongoing”.
Ben Keith, a barrister specialising in extradition, said of the Home Office’s move: “This marks a dramatic change in UK policy to the death penalty. It was a deliberate and calculated change that has huge implications for the UK’s commitment on human rights. Only those people who have been accused of the most serious crimes are at risk of the death penalty in the US but that should not stop the UK upholding human rights.”
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