Death penalty back on trial over case of Islamic State ‘Beatles’ duo

The two men are accused of being in the same terrorist cell as 'Jihadi John' (pictured)
The two men are accused of being in the same terrorist cell as 'Jihadi John' (pictured)
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News that the Government will not oppose two alleged British jihadis from potential execution in the US has reopened a debate about the death penalty. Chris Burn reports.

It has been more than 50 years since the UK last executed a criminal, but the revelation that Britain has dropped its blanket opposition to the death penalty in the cases of two captured Britons accused of being members of the Islamic State cell nicknamed The Beatles has reopened the debate about the country’s relationship with capital punishment.

The Telegraph newspaper revealed on Monday that Home Secretary Sajid Javid has told US Attorney General Jeff Sessions the UK would drop its usual demand for a guarantee that the death penalty would not be imposed in the cases of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh. It has also been reported that Britain would not oppose the pair being sent to Guantanamo without trial, despite the Government’s official position being that the detention centre should be closed.

The two men, who were captured in January, are said to have been members of the brutal four-man Beatles cell - so-named because of their English accents - of IS executioners in Syria and Iraq, responsible for killing a series of high-profile Western captives.

News of the Home Secretary’s apparent support for potential death penalties has been greeted with dismay by former reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Carlile, who said Mr Javid was attempting to change a decades-old policy in secret without any discussion in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the mother of US journalist James Foley, who was killed by another member of the cell, Mohammed Emwazi - otherwise known as ‘Jihadi John’, has set out her reason for opposing the death penalty. “I think that would just make them martyrs in their twisted ideology,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I would like them held accountable by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives.”

There are also concerns the decision would set a disturbing precedent, given the last criminals to be executed in the UK was back in 1964 when two people were hanged for the murder of a man in Cumberland.

That year marked the end of what was once known as ‘The Bloody Code’, which at its peak could see people executed for more than 200 different crimes.

Between 1770 and 1830, around 35,000 death sentences were handed down, with about 7,000 actually carried out.

In December 1969, MPs voted by a big majority for the permanent abolition of the death penalty for murder - the use of which had already been suspended in 1965.

But the death penalty was retained for special offences like treason and piracy with violence until as recently as 1998. As a result, the gallows remained in place at Wandsworth Prison.

In 1999, the home secretary Jack Straw signed the sixth protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights which formally abolished the death penalty in the UK - seemingly ensuring it could not be brought back.

But opposition to the death penalty in this country is far from universal; a study published earlier this year by the Queen Mary University of London found more than of Conservative party members still support the death penalty - compared to just nine per cent of Labour voters and eight per cent of Lib Dems.

However, a lesson on the dubious efficacy of capital punishment may be best taken from a voice from the past with a unique perspective on the issue, the Bradford-born Albert Pierrepoint, who inherited his father’s job as Britain’s chief executioner.

In 15 years, he presided over more than 400 hangings, including that of William Joyce - the traitor and Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. On his retirement in 1958, the Home Office recognised Pierrepoint as the country’s most efficient executioner of all time.

But he revealed in his memoirs, published in 1974, that he had come to the conclusion the death penalty did not work.

“It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree,” he said. “There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know.

“All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.”