CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — In an apparent about-face on Great Britain’s long-held opposition to the death penalty, the Tory government is planning to extradite two alleged Islamic State fighters to the United States, where they could face execution.
The move has come under fire by critics and faces a legal challenge, according to British media, though as of Tuesday no formal challenge had been announced.
The decision was first reported Monday by the Daily Telegraph, citing leaked documents, including a June letter from Sajid Javid, the UK home secretary, to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The letter said the alleged ISIS fighters would be delivered to U.S. authorities without a “death penalty assurance.”
In previous cases, Britain has not handed over people at risk of execution without a guarantee they will not face the death penalty.
El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey — who could be extradited and possibly imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay — allegedly were part of a group of jihadists known as “the Beatles” due to their British accents.
The group held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them in 2014 and 2015. It beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the atrocities in videos, according to The Associated Press.
The two men have been held by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria since they were captured in January. Britain has stripped them of their citizenship.
The government’s move is being blasted by human rights groups, opposition and Tory politicians, and even by the American mother of journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the jihadist group, and a former hostage, French journalist Nicolas Henin, according to European news reports.
Both Diane Foley and Henin said they are concerned the ISIS fighters would be seen as martyrs if they are executed. Labour, Britain’s main opposition party, called on the government to reverse its decision.
The death penalty in Britain was abolished in 1965 and since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the United Kingdom has not extradited terrorist suspects without assurance that the death penalty would not be sought.
Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said in a statement that Javid had “secretly and unilaterally abandoned Britain’s opposition to the death penalty.”
She said the Tory government’s actions encourage the United States and Iran to continue executing people.
In his letter to Sessions, Javid wrote that in this case extraditions to the U.S. would more likely result in a successful prosecution than if they were prosecuted in the U.K. He said U.S. prosecutors have more charges in their arsenal that “carry long sentences.”
Javid said there were “strong reasons” for not seeking assurances about the death penalty, despite that being a “long-held position of the U.K.”
His letter did not elaborate on his reasons. He added, though, that the decision did not change the U.K.’s “stance on the global abolition of the death penalty.”
At an emergency session of the House of Commons on the matter, Security Minister Ben Wallace said the government risks “being seen as hypocrites” if it never makes an exception in its demands for assurances that the death penalty will not be used but uses lethal force to kill people in battle, according to the AP.
On BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show, Ben Emmerson, a human rights lawyer and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, called Javid’s action “almost certainly unlawful,” according to The Guardian.
Emmerson said it is “immaterial” whether the men have been stripped of their British citizenship.
“It is passing information to a foreign power where they know the consequences are going to be a fundamental human rights abuse of this kind,” he said.
Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, a British human rights group, said in a statement that Javid was undermining Britain’s stances against the death penalty and Guantanamo Bay, “in an attempt to outsource our justice system to the U.S.”
“Instead of kowtowing to the Trump administration, Sajid Javid should use the laws already in place to bring these cases before a British court,” Foa said.