The UK Government has had a longstanding and principled moral objection to the death penalty. Whether you agree with that opposition or not, it has hitherto been applied consistently: under UK law there is now no crime which is considered so depraved as to merit capital punishment; nor will the UK permit suspected criminals to be removed, extradited or deported to those countries where a guilty verdict might lead to a sentence of death. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government asserts that all criminals have a right to life, and that right is duly protected. Moreover, the prohibition extends to the abolition of cruel and inhuman treatment, such as the anguish of awaiting execution on ‘Death Row’, or indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay.
Back in 2003 when David Blunkett was Home Secretary, he was asked what would happen if the US asked the UK to extradite a suspect who could face a death sentence. He replied: “They wouldn’t be sent. I am absolutely clear.” In 2008, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith sought assurances that Abu Hamza – a notorious Jihadist and suspected terrorist – would neither be executed nor sent to Guantánamo before she would sign his extradition order, and the US Attorney General duly obliged.
This has been the case hitherto, and whenever the UK has sought to set aside its obligations, the European Court of Human Rights has intervened to halt extradition to the US where it would, if implemented, breach Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has issued an extradition order for Islamists Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh to be tried in the US for their part in Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL acts of terrorism and murder. They are both British citizens – so protected by UK law and the Convention on Human Rights – and yet the Home Secretary has sought no assurances that the pair will not face the death penalty or be incarcerated indefinitely at Guantánamo. “I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought,” he wrote to US Attorney Jeff Sessions. Many will agree with him, of course: those who abandon the values of civilisation and seek to murder us by fighting for the enemy have forfeited the right to life. And many will disagree with him: either the British Government opposes the death penalty or it does not. You can’t abandon your morality just because you don’t like Islamists.
But the reason Sajid Javid gives for extraditing these Jihadists is baldly stated:
Ensuring foreign fighters face justice raises a real challenge for all our jurisdictions, however in this instance we believe that a successful federal prosecution in the US is more likely to be possible because of differences in your statute book and the restrictions on challenges to the route by which defendants appear in US courts. The US currently has additional charges for terrorism offences which are not available under UK criminal law, and those offences carry long sentences.
So the Home Secretary considers UK law to be inadequate to deal with Islamist terrorists, who manifestly deserve the death penalty, but we can’t do that here – our moral principles (and ECHR) won’t let us – so we’re outsourcing the nasty bit to you in the US, because it’s what you do.
This is woeful moral cowardice and political hypocrisy.
Sajid Javid writes:
As you are aware, it is the long held position of the UK to seek death penalty assurances, and our decision in this case does not reflect a change in our policy on assistance in US death penalty cases generally, nor the UK Government’s stance on the global abolition of the death penalty.
But this extradition manifestly does change policy: you cannot righteously preach the moral supremacy of the global abolition of the death penalty, and then extradite your citizens to another state to be executed. You either protect all life or you select certain moral lives for protection. Whatever your stance on capital punishment – and there are sound and sincere scriptural arguments to be made both for (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4) and against (Ex 20:13; Mt 5:38-42; 12:7; Jn 8:7) – what is unacceptable here is the hypocrisy of a government which preaches one thing but facilitates the other. Sajid Javid is effectively scapegoating the US justice system to deal with UK guilt: if we know that Kotey and El-Sheikh are murderous terrorists, we should deal with them justly ourselves. And if that justice might extend to the death penalty, we should admit as much and proclaim the virtues of such a final retribution. What the British Government should not do is determine criminal guilt and then get the US to bear our sins. We cannot then judge the US (or any other country) for their capital barbarism without ourselves being judged.
There is right and wrong in human conduct, and when it comes to pronouncing a verdict on a human being’s life in its totality, we have come to believe that too much is hidden from us to permit any anticipation of God’s final word. Basically, the state can get it wrong, and the end of life should be determined by the Lord of life. If the British Government now believes, with St Augustine, that ‘The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorises killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time’, then Sajid Javid should say so. It is simply hypocritical for the UK Government to outsource its dirty work.