British Islamic State “Beatles” Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges of conspiracy to murder Western hostages.
Kotey, 36, and Elsheikh, 32, who were transferred to the US from Iraq this week, denied eight charges of conspiracy to commit homicide, hostage-taking resulting in death, and material support for a foreign terrorist organisation, before a judge at the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and requested a jury trial.
The trial, which families of The Beatles’ victims feared would never come, is set to be one of the most significant terrorism hearings in US history.
The four-man Beatles cell is alleged to have captured and killed a number of Western hostages between 2012 and 2015, including two British aid workers and four American nationals, and are implicated in the deaths of two-dozen others during their time in IS’s caliphate in Syria.
District Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III enquired into the men’s grasp of English and whether they understood the proceeding.
Both Kotey and Elsheikh were born and grew up in west London and stated that English was their first language. Kotey responded to several questions from the judge with “Yes, your honour”.
Nina Ginsberg, a lawyer for Elsheikh, noted that it has been hard to communicate with her client, with no in-person visits allowed at the prison because of the Covid-19 pandemic and limited access to videoconference or phone lines.
The Judge Ellis said he would see what he could do.
He accepted the defence’s proposal to waive a speedy trial to give them time to go through the "considerable discovery" and scheduled the next hearing for January 15, when a trial date would be decided.
The indictment, filed on Wednesday, alleges that the Londoners “inflicted pain, suffering and cruelty”, which included: victims being put through mock executions, electric shocks, choke holds causing blackouts, food deprivation, being put in stress positions for days, being beating, waterboarding and subject to “rumbles”, which saw them made to fight one another.
Mohammed Emwazi, the ringleader, was killed in a US airstrike in 2015, while the fourth member of the group, Aine Davis, is in prison in Turkey.
The men’s transfer had been held up by disagreements between the US and the UK as to whether the latter would allow the men to stand trial in the US over objection over the death penalty.
The mother of Elsheikh had sought to block a US prosecution because of the prospect of execution if convicted. She lost her appeal at the High Court after Bill Barr, US Attorney General, gave assurances that he would not seek the death penalty for the men.
Last month the UK handed over vital evidence on Kotey and Elsheikh, which is thought to include intercepted communications, interviews with victims and witness testimony, and was vital to the prosecution’s case.