(CN) – Based on the Trump administration’s refusal to put the death penalty off the table, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked sharing information with U.S. authorities about two suspected members of the Islamic State group cell tied to the beheading of reporter James Foley.
“This is a more than usually anxious case,” Justice Brenda Hale wrote, presaging friction between two allied countries over a human rights principle. “It concerns the death penalty.”
Known as “The Beatles” for their British accents, suspected ISIS militants El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey have been eyed by U.S. authorities ever since their capture by Syrian Armed Forces in early 2018.
Since then, U.S. forces have been holding the men in Iraq, accusing them of being part of the same cell that captured, tortured and beheaded more than two dozen hostages, including Foley, his fellow journalist Steven Sotloff, and U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig. The group also has been tied to the killings of British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning.
None of the British justices showed sympathy with the men, with Hale noting they were accused of being “the worst of the worst.”
“These killings came to global attention by all, except one, being filmed and posted on the internet,” Justice Brian Kerr wrote in his section of the ruling. “It is difficult to imagine more horrific murders than those which Mr. El Sheikh and Mr. Kotey are alleged to have carried out.”
Against this backdrop, Elsheikh’s mother entered into a fraught legal battle in July 2018.
U.S. and U.K. authorities had been fighting over whether Elsheikh and Kotey might be executed or sent to Guantánamo Bay, even before the men were captured.
Two successive British home secretaries unsuccessfully sought assurances that the men would be tried in a civilian court without the possibility of capital punishment. The mother argued that British authorities buckled to their U.S. counterparts by sharing information absent these assurances.
The British justices noted Wednesday that this information-sharing would be vital if the men were to be tried in the United States.
“Any prosecution of Mr. El-Sheikh in the U.S. depends critically on the evidence, which has been obtained by the British authorities,” Kerr wrote flatly.
Despite recognizing the effect of that ruling, Kerr concluded: “I believe that the time has arrived where a common law principle should be recognized whereby it is deemed unlawful to facilitate the trial of any individual in a foreign country where, to do so, would put that person in peril of being executed.”
Kerr played down warnings that the ruling would hurt bilateral relations.
“There is no evidence that the insistence on assurances in the case of extradition or deportation has led to any rupture in the relations between the two countries,” Kerr wrote, citing Germany’s similar request related to the federal prosecution of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. “In any event, the reaction of the U.S. has no bearing on the existence of the common law principle.”
Departing from his colleagues, Justice Robert Carnwath warned against a categorical ban on information-sharing with allied countries that have not abolished the death penalty.
“It is not difficult to envisage circumstances where urgent exchange of information with the US security forces might be required relating to an immediate threat to public security, which should not be inhibited by concerns that it might ultimately lead to a risk of the death penalty,” Carnwath wrote.
Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi expressed disappointment with the U.K. Supreme Court's decision.
“As our investigation of these individuals continues, we will work with our UK counterparts on a path forward, consistent with our shared commitment to ensuring that those who commit acts of terror are held accountable for their crimes,” Raimondi said in a statement.
The barrister for Elsheikh's mother did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.