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Islamic State 'Beatle' guilty of all charges in US hostage deaths

From left, Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff. ©AFP

Alexandria (United States) (AFP) - El Shafee Elsheikh, a member of the notorious Islamic State kidnap-and-murder cell known as the "Beatles," was found guilty of all charges on Thursday for the deaths of four American hostages in Syria.

A federal jury convicted Elsheikh, 33, a former British national, of eight counts after a two-week trial, the most significant prosecution of an IS militant in the United States.

Elsheikh was charged with hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder US citizens -- journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller -- and supporting a terrorist organization.

"This is a day that we didn't need bombs or bullets to bring justice," said Foley's mother Diane."I really feel that justice prevailed."

Mueller's father also welcomed the guilty verdicts, delivered after a grueling trial in US District Court in Alexandria near the capital Washington.

"We all saw the American justice system do what it does best," said Carl Mueller, whose wife, Marsha, testified about the eventually fruitless negotiations with the hostage-takers, who were demanding five million euros in exchange for their daughter.

The 12-person jury deliberated for less than six hours over two days before reaching the verdict.

Elsheikh, bearded and wearing a Covid facemask, did not display any visible reaction as it was read but several relatives of the slain American hostages who were in the public gallery dabbed at their eyes.

Elsheikh and another former "Beatle," Alexanda Amon Kotey, 38, were captured by a Kurdish militia in Syria in January 2018 and handed over to US forces in Iraq.

They were flown to the United States in 2020 to face trial.Kotey pleaded guilty in September 2021 and faces life in prison.He is to be sentenced on April 29.

Elsheikh, who was stripped of his citizenship by Britain, is to be sentenced on August 12 and also faces the prospect of life behind bars.

"The sentence he's going to get is probably worse than a death sentence," Carl Mueller said, adding that he expected him to be sent to the spartan prison known as "Supermax" in Colorado.

'Does not bring back the dead'

The question of identification hung over Elsheikh's trial because the "Beatles" always wore masks around the hostages and would blindfold them or force them to kneel facing a wall.

Defense attorney Nina Ginsberg argued that while Elsheikh may indeed have been an IS fighter and the "Beatles" were responsible for "brutal" acts, prosecutors had not proved he actually was a "Beatle."

Besides taking American hostages, Elsheikh and the other "Beatles" are accused of abducting some 20 other journalists and relief workers from Europe, Russia and Japan.Several were killed while others were released for ransoms.

The hostage-takers were dubbed the "Beatles" by their captives because of their British accents.

During the trial, prosecutors played media interviews for the jury during which Elsheikh acknowledged having interactions with some of the hostages.

In the interviews conducted after his capture in Syria, Elsheikh admitted taking email addresses and proof of life questions from the captives and acknowledged he did not always show them "compassion."

Ginsberg said Elsheikh only made the admissions to avoid being sent to Iraq, where he would have faced a summary trial and execution.

He wanted to be sent to Britain or the United States "where he could get a fair trial," she said.

Nicolas Henin, a former French hostage who testified about his harrowing treatment in captivity, welcomed the verdict.

"A terrorist crime opens a gaping wound in a society," Henin said."Only justice can bring closure to such a monstrous chapter.

"It does not bring back the dead, it does not heal all the pain, but it soothes."

'Brutal legacy'

Ten former European and Syrian hostages testified at the trial accusing the "Beatles" of months of brutal treatment including beatings, electric shocks, waterboarding and mock executions.

Foley, Sotloff and Kassig were beheaded by "Beatle" Mohamed Emwazi, known as "Jihadi John," and videos of their deaths were released by IS for propaganda purposes.

Mueller was initially held by the "Beatles" but was later turned over to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reportedly raped her repeatedly.

IS announced Mueller's death in February 2015, IS said she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, a claim disputed by US authorities.

Baghdadi died during a US special forces raid in 2019.Emwazi was killed by a US drone in Syria in 2015.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Raj Parekh told the jury the government had proved that Elsheikh, Kotey and Emwazi "grew up together, radicalized together, fought as high-ranking IS fighters together and tortured and terrorized hostages together."

"What these horrific crimes left behind is a legacy of brutal killings and shattered families," Parekh said.

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