I’m delighted to host this guest blogpost by Ryan Dowding. Ryan holds a postgraduate degree in International Human Rights Law and kicks off his pupillage this October. He also teaches human rights in schools and colleges through the Your Rights Matter initiative and runs the law and politics blog Arguably. He tweets at @DowdingRyan.
The United Kingdom has for decades set its face firmly against capital punishment. However, this historic opposition was cast into doubt last month when a secret letter, from our Home Secretary to the Attorney General of the United States, was leaked to The Telegraph. Its effect would have been to render the UK complicit in the trial and possible execution of Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh – two members of ISIS captured, in February 2018, by US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria. In what follows I set out some background information, before turning my attention to the legality of Sajid Javid’s controversial correspondence.
Kotey and Elsheikh were part of an ISIS cell called ‘the Beatles’ by their captives because of their distinctive British accents. Despite growing up in London, they were stripped of their citizenship after their alleged involvement in the execution of a number of individuals, including journalist James Foley. These crimes were barbaric and warrant no sympathy. It is therefore clearly right that the two stand trial and, if found guilty, face harsh punishment. It is also right that those with probative information about their role cooperate with the US authorities in bringing them to justice. It was to that end that Sajid Javid dispatched his notorious letter on 22 July 2018.
The Home Secretary acceded to a request for Mutual Legal Assistance (‘MLA’) – i.e., the provision of material and assistance for use in the prosecution of the two men by the US. His letter referenced the need to deliver justice for the victims’ relatives who had voiced “demands that both detainees face the rest of their lives in prison”. This was a clear allusion to a poignant Op-Ed in the New York Times by Diane and John Foley, Marsha and Carl Mueller, Shirley and Arthur Sotloff and Paula and Ed Kassig – the parents of four victims of the so-called Beatles:
[W]e agree with the longstanding British government position that it would be a mistake to send killers like these to the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, or to seek the death penalty in court […]
Instead, they should be tried in our fair and open legal system, or in a court of international justice, and then spend the rest of their lives in prison. That is what our children would have wanted.
It appears from the final paragraphs of his letter, however, that the Home Secretary was merely paying lip service to their wishes as he concluded that there were “strong reasons” not to seek assurances from the US that the two would not be executed if convicted. When the letter was leaked, the Home Office faced immediate backlash from human rights organisations, followed by threats of legal action. As a result, it temporarily suspended cooperation with the US. However, a spokesperson said that the government “had acted in full accordance of the law and … the government’s longstanding MLA policy”.
But what policy was the Home Office referring to? And was it in fact acting within the law?
The UK and Capital Punishment – A Potted History
Since at least the early 19th century, Parliament had incrementally hacked away at the death penalty, precluding its use in relation to an increasing number of specific offences. During the 20th and 21st centuries, however, a number of crucial steps were taken which eventually resulted in total abolition. The introduction of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 did away with the punishment in respect of those found guilty of murder. Further piecemeal reforms followed, including the outlawing of the penalty, in 1971, for the obscure offence of arson at a naval dockyard and in respect of treason with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The final nails in the coffin came when the UK introduced the Human Rights Act 1998 and signed and ratified Protocols 6 and 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’) in 1999 and 2004. Cumulatively, they required the UK to abolish the death penalty in all circumstances. Our government has since produced a strategy document codifying the “longstanding policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle”.
It is perhaps unsurprising against this backdrop that leading human rights barrister, Ben Emmerson QC, wrote in The Guardian that the UK’s “opposition to the death penalty has … hardened into a constitutional principle”.
Home Office Guidance
I now return to the policy purportedly relied on by the Home Secretary. There are two which warrant consideration:
- Requests for MLA in Criminal Matters: Guidelines for Authorities Outside of the United Kingdom (12th edition) (‘MLA Guidelines’); and
- Overseas Security and Justice Assistance: Human Rights Guidance (‘OSJA Guidance’).
The MLA Guidelines can be dealt with briefly. The document simply, at page 15, informs the rest of the world that the UK may refuse to provide assistance where there is a “risk that the death penalty will be imposed for the crime under investigation”. The more crucial document for our purposes is the OSJA Guidance which offers guidance to UK officials providing security and justice assistance overseas. Pursuant to that aim, a number of human rights risks are identified, including the possible use of the death penalty. The Guidance then sets out how to mitigate those risks. When the Home Secretary suggested there were ‘strong reasons’ not to seek assurances for Kotey and Elsheikh, his language mirrored the wording set out at page 22 of the OSJA Guidance. That section explains that although assurances should be sought where there is a risk of the death penalty being imposed, where they are not forthcoming, or there are ‘strong reasons’ not to seek them, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (‘FCO’) may be consulted to determine whether assistance should nonetheless be provided.
There is no suggestion made in the letter that assurances would not be forthcoming. Indeed, it is clear that the US has offered assurances capable of satisfying the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’) in respect of high-profile terror suspects in the past. However, it was made clear by Sajid Javid that no such undertakings were sought:
[T]here are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.
The letter unfortunately omits any elaboration as to what reasons were relied upon. This may be because it is difficult – particularly in light of the UK’s human rights obligations – to imagine what lawful reasons could possibly justify the decision. Indeed, any reasons would have to be exceptionally strong in a case such as this, involving a positive decision not to seek any undertaking from the US.
Assuming, nevertheless, that the Home Office does have legitimately ‘strong reasons’, would its actions then be rendered legal?
In short – probably not.
Falling at the First Hurdle
To begin with, the Home Secretary may have fallen foul of the OSJA Guidance. While purporting to provide an exception to the need to seek assurances, the document adds a caveat where the method of the death penalty could amount to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, for example, an excessive period on death row.
The intersection between the death penalty and torture will be returned to below. For present purposes, I draw attention to the 1989 case of Soering v United Kingdom in which the ECtHR made clear that the extradition of an individual to the US to face the death penalty violated his right not to be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment. This conclusion was not based on the administration of the penalty itself, but on the ‘death row phenomenon’ – in other words the harsh prison conditions on death row alongside the “mental anguish” and psychological damage which accompanies sitting around for years and waiting to be led to the electric chair. While other factors – including the age and health of the appellant – were at play in that case, a decade later the UK’s own Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled, in Pratt and Morgan v The Attorney General for Jamaica, that there would be “strong grounds” for believing that any delay before execution of over 5 years would constitute inhuman or degrading treatment.
As Lord Griffiths explained:
There is an instinctive revulsion against the prospect of hanging a man after he has been held under sentence of death for many years. What gives rise to this instinctive revulsion? The answer can only be our humanity.
These cases are important because as of 2010 death row inmates in the US wait an average of 15 years before their execution. It is not unreasonable to expect that Kotey and Elsheikh will be forced to wait for a significant amount of time given the complex legal issues which are likely to arise as they exhaust their various rights of appeal. The Home Secretary should therefore have considered the section of the OSJA Guidance relating to torture, which provides no exceptions to the need to seek assurances akin to those present in relation to the death penalty.
Why the Guidance Itself may also be Unlawful Under the ECHR
The OSJA Guidance is just that – guidance. It is neither primary nor secondary legislation and its drafters were required by the Human Rights Act to ensure its compliance with the ECHR. However, it appears they have not kept pace with developments at the European Court.
The ECtHR has, over time, broadened the scope of what it considers to be a violation of the right to life (article 2) and the prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (article 3). These moves came to a head in the landmark case of Al-Saadoon v United Kingdom. In that case, UK soldiers operating in Iraq transferred the applicant, a captive in their custody, to the Iraqi authorities. He argued in turn that this was a violation of his rights under articles 2, 3 and Protocol 13 (right not to be subjected to the death penalty). In a powerful judgment which cited the almost complete abolition of the death penalty across Europe, the ECtHR agreed, finding for the first time that the death penalty as such is a violation of the rights listed above.
The Court noted in particular that:
[I]t is not open to a Contracting State to enter into an agreement with another State which conflicts with its obligations under the Convention.
The ECtHR has also imposed a positive obligation on states to seek assurances that the death penalty will not be carried out. In 2014, having found Poland liable for ‘rendering’ – a euphemism for forcible deportation – the applicant to Guantanamo Bay, the Court took the unusual step of spelling out that Poland was required “as soon as possible” to rectify its violation by seeking assurances from the US that he would not be subject to the death penalty.
These cases suggest that the UK not only entered an unlawful agreement with the US, but may now be obliged to seek assurances that Kotey and Elsheikh will not be executed if convicted.
The developments also bear significance because of the UK’s stance on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. To quote from a ruling by the late Lord Bingham, the common law set its face against the practice because of a “belief that it degrade[s] all those who len[d] themselves to it”. I would argue that there could hardly be a clearer case of a state lending itself to an unlawful practice than the UK’s offer to do the US’s dirty work and assist the prosecution of those likely to be condemned to death. The move also, shamefully, ignores the pleas of the victims’ relatives that these people be tried and imprisoned; pleas by US citizens which might indeed have provided strong reasons for the US to accede to any request for assurance in this case.
While I have been unable – despite the ample space provided to me by The Secret Barrister – to leave no stones unturned, as the Howard League for Penal Reform gears up to take the Home Secretary to task, I hope I have provided a taste of the arguments likely to surface in due course.
Post-Script – A Brief Note on Jurisdiction
A potentially tricky point in terms of the UK’s responsibilities under the ECHR is whether or not it can be said to have exercised jurisdiction – i.e., authority or control – over the two men. Much smarter people than I have dedicated chapters of books to this byzantine principle (exhibit A; exhibit B etc…). I am unable to do the matter any real justice here. However, I would say that the suggestion that the UK bears no responsibility for the rights of those who it offers to help convict and potentially put to death, is arguably untenable given the ever-expanding notion of jurisdiction. This is particularly so in the face of judgments such as Stephens v Malta and, more recently, Vasilicius v Moldova. In those cases, the ECtHR held Malta and Moldova liable for the unlawful detention of the applicants in Spain and Greece respectively. Notably, in the former, the applicant was a UK national who had never set foot in Malta. The Court came to its decision on the basis that by issuing the arrest warrants Malta and Moldova exercised jurisdiction over the applicants and were therefore responsible for the end-result – namely, their unlawful detention.
It is difficult to see why the provision by a country of legal assistance which is likely to increase the prospect that an individual will be subjected to capital punishment should be treated differently. This is especially so given the “absolute and fundamental nature of the right not to be subjected to the death penalty” (Al Saadoon, above).