10:38, July 23 58 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-23 10:38:05
Is the UK government's stance on the death penalty shifting?

Sajid Javid’s letter to the US attorney general, in which the home secretary says the UK government will not seek assurances over the use of the death penalty against two former British citizens and alleged terrorist murderers has renewed concerns the government is loosening its stance on the abolition of the death penalty.

What is the UK government’s policy towards the death penalty?

The UK abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965. Looking overseas, there has been a long-held opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle.

The coalition government published a death penalty strategy in 2011, setting out its approach to the issue. The current government decided not to publish an updated strategy. Pressed on the issue since 2015, the it has said it has not changed its policy.

Under its goals, the strategy states the UK aims to increase the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty.

Why is the UK’s stance under fresh scrutiny?

Javid has told the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, that the UK will not seek assurances that the death penalty will not be used against two former British citizens if they were put on trial and convicted in the US for alleged crimes committed in Syria as members of an Islamic State (Isis) cell.

Who are the two former British citizens?

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are alleged to have been members of a four-man cell of Isis executioners in Syria and Iraq responsible for killing a series of high-profile western captives.

The two men, 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.

When does the UK seek a death penalty assurance?

The Extradition Act 2003 allows the UK to extradite individuals to certain countries, including the US, but removing someone to the authority of a foreign state is prohibited by statute if that person could face the death penalty - unless the home secretary gets adequate written assurance that it will not be imposed.

Kotey and Elsheikh, however, were not captured on British soil, and so have not been subject to extradition proceedings.

In his letter to Sessions, Javid agrees to the US request for “mutual legal assistance” (MLA). MLA is a method of cooperation between states for obtaining assistance in the investigation or prosecution of criminal offences.

He reveals that SO15, the counter terrorism command of the Metropolitan police, has worked with the FBI in investigating Kotey and Elsheikh. They have compiled more than 600 witness statements, he says. Intelligence implicating the two men in kidnap and murder has been gathered.

Official guidelines for the granting of MLA state that if death is a possible sentence or penalty for the offence under investigation, an “assurance that such a sentence will not be carried out or will be commuted” is required.

In this case, however, Javid has decided not to seek a death penalty assurance.

What are the implications of this shift in stance?

In his letter, Javid says that the decision does not reflect the UK government’s policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally nor its stance on the global abolition of the death penalty.

Human rights campaigners are concerned, however, that the decision not to seek assurance from the US over the use of the death penalty is unprecedented. They say it could pave the way for further assurances to be abandoned in cases with less overwhelming evidence and in which the accused might be innocent.

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