Attorney General William Barr said the United States would not pursue the death penalty against two alleged ISIS terrorists accused of playing a role in the kidnapping, torture, and beheading of Western hostages. The move lifts a hurdle that blocks the UK government from sharing information with prosecutors in the U.S. effort to put the men on trial.
Barr provided an assurance to the British Home Secretary in a letter this week that the United States will not seek the death penalty against El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey if the UK government shares evidence that could assist in any possible U.S. prosecution of the two men. Elsheikh and Kotey were captured by Syrian Kurdish forces in 2018 and were later transferred to the custody of the U.S. military.
A British court ruling (pdf) earlier this year effectively blocked the UK government from sharing information with U.S. authorities, saying that the evidence should not be handed over without the proper death penalty assurances.
The two men are accused of being members of the ISIS terrorist group and are accused of being involved in the kidnappings, murders, and other violent crimes of hostages from the UK and the United States and other countries.
Barr said that if the United States receives the requested evidence and cooperation from the UK, the United States intends to proceed with a prosecution.
“Indeed, it is these unique circumstances that have led me to provide the assurance offered in this letter,” Barr said (pdf). “We would hope and expect that, in light of this assurance, the evidence can and will now be provided promptly.”
The attorney general also imposed an Oct. 15 deadline for the UK to complete all its litigation that has become a barrier for the sharing of evidence. If the UK government fails to do so, the United States will move forward with its plans to transfer Elsheikh and Kotey to Iraq for prosecution.
“Time is of the essence,” Barr wrote. “Kotey and Elsheikh are currently held by United States military authorities in an overseas theater of military operations, and it is not tenable to continue holding them there for an extended period. Final decisions must be made about this matter.”
U.S. officials have not announced any charges against the men, but have spoken of their desire to see members of the cell, nicknamed the “Beatles” by surviving captives because of their British accents, face justice.
The British government confirmed that it had received the letter, with the Home Office saying in a statement that its top priority has always been to protect national security and to deliver justice for families of the victims.
The decision is a significant development in years of wrangling over Kotey and Elsheikh. The U.S. and British governments have an agreement to share documents, records, and other evidence in criminal investigations. In 2015, the Justice Department asked for evidence that Britain had gathered on the “Beatles,” saying it was doing its own investigation into Americans who were murdered in Syria.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.