Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee ElsheikhImage copyright

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Alexanda Kotey (left) and El Shafee Elsheikh were captured by Syrian Kurdish forces

The US has told the UK that two Islamic State suspects will not face the death penalty if convicted of the killings of Western hostages in Iraq and Syria.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are accused of being the last two members of an IS cell dubbed “The Beatles” because of their UK accents.

The US sought the UK’s help in the case but a legal fight over the use of the death penalty has stymied co-operation.

The US has now made clear the two will not be executed if found guilty.

In a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General William Barr said the death penalty will not be pursued against the two men in the event of their convictions “if the UK agrees to turn over vital evidence”.

The pair, who are in US military custody in Iraq, were British citizens, but have been stripped of their UK nationality.

They are alleged to have been members of an IS kidnap gang behind the killings of a number of Western hostages, including American journalists and British aid workers, in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The victims were beheaded and their deaths filmed and broadcast on social media.

The UK believes the men cannot be legally extradited to the UK, but in 2018 it emerged that the US was preparing the ground to prosecute the men – and that it had asked the UK for information that would help convict them.

In response, ministers said they would share intelligence, without opposing a death penalty sentence.

But co-operation with the US was halted after the mother of El Shafee Elsheikh launched a legal challenge, arguing the UK’s position was in breach of its internationally recognised opposition to capital punishment.

Legal battle

In the past Britain has sought assurances from foreign governments that the death penalty would not be used in cases where the UK provided information or extradited suspects.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the US government’s demand to use crucial evidence from the UK in the case was unlawful.

At the time, the UK said it was “a long-standing position” to oppose the death penalty but added that in this case it was “a priority to make sure that these men face criminal prosecution”.

However, the UK has made clear that if the pair were sent to the controversial US military prison Guantanamo Bay – where suspects have been detained without trial – the UK would withhold intelligence.

The BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner said the US were warning that if the issue was not settled by the middle of October, the two men would be handed over to the Iraqi government.

Several relatives of the murdered western hostages have said they want the men to face a fair trial, rather than the death penalty.

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