‘Countless’ lives at risk from UK Government’s ‘dangerously short-sighted’ approach to death penalty

July 31, 2019

Image of hands hanging out of a prison cell

Human rights NGO Reprieve has intervened in a UK Supreme Court case arguing that the Home Secretary is putting British lives around the globe at risk by refusing to seek death penalty assurances from the US for two men currently held in Syria.

Maha Elgizouli V Secretary of State for the Home Department, being heard in the Supreme Court yesterday (Tuesday) and today, considers then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to share information with US authorities regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey in support of a US prosecution that will likely see the men face the death penalty.

The Home Secretary did not seek an assurance that the men won’t face the death penalty if prosecuted in the US before offering to share intelligence on them with American authorities.

The UK government would ordinarily request assurances as a matter of course before sharing intelligence or conducting other activities with a foreign state that could lead to individuals facing capital charges. The decision not to do so in this instance was in part because the government worried that it might “wind the [US] President up to complain to the PM and, potentially, to hold a grudge”.

Reprieve’s intervention argues that the Home Secretary’s decision not to seek death penalty assurances will have a devastating impact on countless other individuals facing the death penalty around the world. Those people who face the death penalty now, and who may in the future, are placed at risk as a result of the government’s departure from the UK’s “categorical” opposition to the death penalty. Last week President Trump’s administration announced it was resuming federal executions.

An intervention is an independent submission brought by a third party to raise an issue of public importance. It is not on behalf of Maha Elgizouli, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, or the UK government.

During Parliamentary debates last year, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – then Security Minister – claimed that the Crown Prosecution Service “was clear that it did not have the evidence to try them in this country”, leading to a Government decision to seek their prosecution in the US. However, evidence emerged in court yesterday that, contrary to the Defence Secretary’s repeated statements before Parliament, the CPS had in fact authorised charges against Kotey for his involvement in five murders suggesting it did, in fact, have sufficient evidence to prosecute him.

Reprieve Director Maya Foa, said: “It is dangerously short-sighted to abandon a principled British position, that we’ve held for over half a century, because President Trump might take offence. This decision sends a clear message that the UK government’s opposition to the death penalty is not categorical. By abandoning its abolitionist stance, the UK government is undermining its own efforts to prevent the use of the death penalty across the world. Left as it is, this decision will have devastating impacts for people – including British people – facing execution around the world. Principles can’t be jettisoned when they become politically inconvenient.”