There seems to be a reason why Ministers decided to pass information about two suspected ISIS terrorists to the United States without seeking assurances that doing so would not contribute to death sentences – to which successive governments have been opposed. It is that the information concerned is not sufficient to contribute to the death penalty being used in the event of the men being extradited to America for trial. (They are currently being held in Syria by pro-western fighters.) For clarity, the two men concerned, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheik, have been stripped of their British citizenship. They are believed to have murdered two British aid workers, David Haines and Alan Henning, as well as three Americans.
But it is possible, of course, that Theresa May, Sajid Javid and Boris Johnson – the Ministers concerned – are wrong, and that the two will, in due course, be first extradited, then tried, then executed. If so, it might be useful to reflect on the gulf between the reaction of MPs yesterday and that of most voters. “Murderous terrorist scum” will be view of the latter. That was the blunt take of only one backbencher yesterday – Andrew Percy from Brigg and Goole.
Most of the rest were worried that the Government’s opposition to the death penalty is being torn up. Ben Wallace, responding at the dispatch box, said that it isn’t. And he hinted that the alternative to eventual extradition to the United States would be releasing the men altogether, thus enabling them to commit more terrorist outrages. One point is clear, which the removal of their British citizenship reinforces: Ministers don’t want either of them here.
Out of sight, out of mind. None the less, there is a strong case for putting the pair on trial in Britain. In the Commons yesterday, Tom Tugendhat came close to calling for the availability of treason charges. The answer that comes back from Whitehall is that obtaining convictions might not be possible here – despite, we read, “the existence of intelligence implicating them in the murder of two British citizens, backed up by statements from 600 witnessess collected by the Metropolitan police and the FBI”. Michael Fallon suggested in the Commons that the cause is the European Convention on Human Rights. Wallace referred obscurely to “gaps in the statute book”. These appear to close when those under scrutiny are not suspected ISIS murderers, but former British soliders who served in Northern Ireland.
We suspect there is another reason for the Ministers’ decision. A trial in Britain, in this case, would have an immediacy that an American prosecution would not. Asim Qureshi, the Research Director of CAGE, called Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a Jihadi John, a “beautiful young man”. We could expect more of the same from Britain’s network of Islamist groups. The likes of Tommy Robinson would also grab their chance to cause a stir. Social media users would risk contempt of court. A small minority of Muslims would be reminded of the men’s existence, and view them as heroes – perhaps to be emulated. Ministers would look on this prospect with alarm. Easier, in this case, to let the sleeping dogs of community relations lie, and let the American Government and legal system to take the strain.