Britons accused in beheading of hostages plead not guilty

Britons accused in beheading of hostages plead not guilty
Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh (Hussein Malla/AP)

Two British men charged with helping the Islamic State group carry out executions and ransom negotiations for Western hostages have pleaded not guilty in a US federal court.

El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are identified by authorities as two of four men who were dubbed “the Beatles” by hostages, who took note of their British accents.

They were indicted this week in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, on charges including hostage-taking resulting in death and providing material support to terrorists.

Alexanda Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh at a security centre in Kobani, Syria (Hussein Malla/AP)

The indictment charges the men in connection with the deaths of four American hostages — journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller — as well as European and Japanese nationals who were also held captive.

At a brief hearing on Friday in the court just outside Washington, DC, the two men pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.

No trial date was set after both men waived their right to a speedy trial because of the case’s complexity. A status hearing was set for January 15 to set a trial date then.

The men appeared for both hearings via videolink from the Alexandria jail, handcuffed and wearing green jail jumpsuits.

At their initial appearance on Wednesday, the magistrate made an offhand remark that one of the two has tested positive for coronavirus, but authorities have declined to confirm anything related to their medical status.

The men were transferred from American military custody to stand trial in civilian court after the United Kingdom agreed to share evidence it had on the men.

The information was shared only after US Attorney General William Barr promised that the men will not face the death penalty.

Five of the eight counts each man faces, though, carry a mandatory minimum life prison sentence if convicted.

The charges capped a years-long effort by US authorities to bring to justice suspected members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria.

Elsheikh and Kotey have been held since October 2019 in American military custody. They were captured in Syria one year before that by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.

Prosecutor Dennis Fitzpatrick said some of the evidence in the case is classified, which will require some pretrial hearings to be closed to the public to sort out how that evidence will be handled.

“This involves a long investigation involving multiple countries,” Mr Fitzpatrick said when asked about the volume of evidence that must be weighed.

The indictment characterises Kotey and Elsheikh, both of whom prosecutors say radicalized in London and left for Syria in 2012, as “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that targeted victims with mock executions, shocks with tasers, physical restraints and other brutal acts.

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