08:53, July 24 88 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-24 08:53:15
First thoughts  
 The death penalty is an abomination – Sajid Javid must not condone it

If even half of what we think we know about Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh is true, they are monsters.

They stand accused of being two of the four so-called “Isis Beatles”, the notoriously cruel British-born jihadis responsible for beheading at least five hostages – British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines, plus the US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the US humanitarian worker Peter Kassig – alongside countless incidents of torture and degradation. Neither shows remorse, and neither is legally entitled to the protection of the British state any more since being stripped of their British citizenship. The Sun is probably right to argue most people would happily see them dead. But for “string ‘em up, for all we care”, to become the effective position of the British government is a genuinely shocking moment all the same.

There was no discussion, no debate in parliament. MPs only found out from the newspapers that the home secretary Sajid Javid had upended the settled view of successive governments, by declining to seek American assurances that the death penalty would not be invoked before co-operating with attempts to put them on trial in the US. Javid wasn’t in parliament to explain himself on Monday but his security minister Ben Wallace did volunteer that sticking to our usual principles might “get in the way of” a trial.

Principles do admittedly get in the way of all sorts of things, but that’s what makes them principles. They’re meant to be inviolable, immovable, moral absolutes. You can’t be opposed in principle to the death penalty except when it turns out to be inconvenient, or in favour of human rights only so long as they apply to likeable people. Putting humans to death is either wrong or it isn’t, and as a nation we have been officially opposed to it for so long that we had begun to take it dangerously for granted. Suddenly, the debate no longer feels settled.

It should be said that there were no good choices here for government, or for the bereaved families who would naturally like to see justice done.

The chances of a conviction in the UK courts are deemed low, given that the surviving hostages never saw their captors without masks and the case against them relies heavily on intelligence material that might be hard to share in court. The options are leaving them to rot in the custody of Kurdish forces in Syria, without a trial of any kind; internment in Guantanamo, without a trial of any kind; and trial in the US. It’s obvious why Javid might prefer the latter, but baffling that he didn’t even try to seek guarantees about use of the death penalty first.

The Americans know what our position has always been, and presumably wouldn’t have been surprised if we had stuck to it. Wallace told parliament there was no direct request from Donald Trump’s administration for the government to roll over. So the obvious conclusion is that either it was made indirectly very clear that we should, or Javid did it simply because he thought the end justified the means; that it wasn’t such a big deal. In his letter, he insists this is not a shift in British policy either on getting involved in US death penalty cases or on the use of the death penalty generally around the world.

But what makes MPs so furious is that that’s precisely how it will be seen, particularly given recent revelations that British intelligence agencies were complicit in the torture and rendition of terror suspects after 9/11. What price the high moral ground from which we used to lecture regimes guilty of human rights abuses, when we’re once again caught selling our own principles down the river? Expect the pro-hanging brigade in this country too to be emboldened by what looks like an unexpected opportunity to push their case.

What really sticks in the throat, however, is the propaganda coup this represents for Isis. They are being given the martyrs they seek on a plate. Now watch them argue that western liberal democracies are hypocrites who can’t even live up to the values they are supposedly fighting to defend; that when it comes to the crunch the west is no better than them, that the difference between electric chair and serrated knife is not so very great. Britain has once again squandered moral legitimacy for reasons the government either can’t or won’t explain. Sooner or later, that will surely come back to haunt us.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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