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2 of ISIS’ Infamous British Fighters Are Captured by Syrian Kurds

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WASHINGTON — Syrian Kurdish fighters have detained two British men infamous for their role in the Islamic State’s imprisonment, torture and killing of Western hostages, according to American officials.

The men were part of a group of four Islamic State militants known as the “Beatles” because of their British accents. Officials identified the two men captured as Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh. They were the last two members of the group to remain at large.

The ringleader, Mohammed Emwazi, was killed in an airstrike in 2015 in Syria after an intensive manhunt. Known as “Jihadi John,” he beheaded American and British hostages. A fourth man, Aine Davis, is imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges.

All four had lived in West London. Mr. Kotey, born in London, is of Ghanaian and Greek Cypriot background, while Mr. Elsheikh’s family fled Sudan in the 1990s. Both men have been designated foreign terrorists by the United States.

The British extremists were known for their brutality. They repeatedly beat the hostages they kept imprisoned in Raqqa, Syria, formerly the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, and subjected them to waterboarding and mock executions. Mr. Emwazi was believed to have killed the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as Abdul-Rahman Kassig, an aid worker. The American government says the group beheaded more than 27 hostages.

According to the State Department, Mr. Kotey “likely engaged in the group’s executions and exceptionally cruel torture methods, including electronic shock and waterboarding. Kotey has also acted as an ISIL recruiter and is responsible for recruiting several U.K. nationals to join the terrorist organization.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

Mr. Elsheikh traveled to Syria in 2012 and joined Al Qaeda in Syria before aligning himself with the Islamic State. “Elsheikh was said to have earned a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions and crucifixions while serving as an ISIS jailer,” the State Department said.

Mr. Kotey, 34, and Mr. Elsheikh, 29, were detained by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia, which is fighting the last pockets of Islamic State insurgents in Syrian towns and villages along the Euphrates River south to the border with Iraq. American officials were informed in mid-January that the militia might have captured the men.

The S.D.F. suspected that the two men were foreign fighters and gave them access to American Special Operations forces, United States officials said. The Americans confirmed their identities using fingerprints and other biometric measurements.

Their capture and detention were described to The New York Times by several United States officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the case remain secret. Cmdr. Sarah Higgins of the Navy, a Pentagon spokeswoman for detention policy issues, declined to comment.

The series of gruesome beheadings that started with Mr. Foley in 2014 rocked the Obama administration, which had been accused by the victims’ families of failing to do enough to save their loved ones. The American military did raid the prison in Raqqa in July 2014, but the Islamic State had already moved its hostages.

Because of the families’ complaints, the Obama administration made major changes to the way the government handles the abduction of United States citizens. It created a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, which is led currently by the F.B.I., and a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. The Trump administration has yet to fill the envoy role.

The families have long hoped to recover the bodies of their loved ones, but the Islamic State’s control of chunks of Syria rendered the task nearly impossible.

It was not clear whether the Justice Department would prosecute the two men or when the United States military would take custody of them. For the F.B.I. agents and other officials who have long worked on the case, bringing back the men to face federal prosecution would be a major victory.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been an outspoken supporter of continuing to use the wartime prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the military commissions held there. Thomas P. Bossert, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, has also pushed for the suspects to be sent to the military prison.

Britain, a close ally of the United States, could object to sending the men to the wartime prison, which has a toxic image abroad. It negotiated the repatriation of all nine of its citizens whom the Bush administration had brought there by 2005; the last resident of Britain held at the prison, Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen who lived for years in Britain with his family, was sent back there in 2015.

But the British government has stripped Mr. Kotey and Mr. Elsheikh of their citizenship, according to a United States official. Last year, The Times of London reported that the government had rescinded the British citizenship of about 150 dual citizens who were suspected of having joined the Islamic State, in order to keep them from re-entering the country.

In addition, because the men are suspected of being members of the Islamic State, not Al Qaeda, taking them to Guantánamo — where detainees have a right to bring habeas corpus challenges to their detention — would create a legal headache that national security officials want to avoid. It would give a judge an opportunity to rule on the dispute over whether the congressional authorization for use of military force against the perpetrators of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, legitimately covers the Islamic State.

Moreover, if the United States fails to prosecute the men in federal court, it could anger the victims’ families, causing yet another disappointment. The Guantánamo military commissions system has struggled to get contested cases to trial, even as prosecutors in civilian court have won numerous convictions in terrorism cases.

The United States government has in the past avoided taking on the difficulties of handling the long-term detention or prosecution of Islamic State detainees caught in the war zone.

In 2016, an Iraqi woman, known by the nom de guerre Umm Sayyaf, was captured in a raid on an Islamic State compound in eastern Syria. She was implicated in the imprisonment of an aid worker, Kayla Mueller, 26, of Prescott, Ariz., who was killed in 2015. (The circumstances surrounding Ms. Mueller’s death remain a mystery. The Islamic State said she was killed in a bombing raid.)

Some American law enforcement officials wanted to prosecute Ms. Sayyaf in Virginia, and federal prosecutors filed charges against her, but after a lengthy interrogation, she was turned over to Iraqi government custody instead.

Ms. Mueller had been originally imprisoned by the British militants, but was moved to another location, where she is believed to have been badly abused by the leader of the Islamic State before her death.

A senior United States official said Mr. Kotey and Mr. Elsheikh had provided valuable information to military interrogators about the remaining Islamic State leadership and support structure, which are under tremendous pressure from air and ground attacks.

There were some indications that the two men initially sought to hide their identities, but the Special Operations forces routinely run fingerprint checks and other biometric measurements to identify known terrorist leaders and catalog rank-and-file militants.

Other information has been collected from cellphones and other electronic equipment they were carrying, the United States official said. The men could also have information about other hostages, including the British journalist John Cantlie, who was abducted with Mr. Foley in 2012. Since he was taken hostage, Mr. Cantlie has appeared in several Islamic State propaganda videos.

American officials had sought to keep the capture of the two British suspects under wraps to allow analysts more time to pursue the intelligence leads developed from their detention and prepare raids against unsuspecting Islamic State targets.

American warplanes and Kurdish-led ground forces are hunting for the several hundred remaining Islamic State fighters hiding along the Euphrates River Valley near the border between Syria and Iraq.

The American-led military command in Baghdad said in a statement last week that four senior Islamic State commanders and officials, including two operatives dealing with logistics and immigration, were killed in the region in the past month.

The most prized Islamic State target, however, has proved the most elusive: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader. While rumors have surfaced repeatedly over the past three years of Mr. Baghdadi’s death or wounding in airstrikes, American counterterrorism officials believe he is alive and most likely hiding in the Sunni border areas straddling Iraq and Syria.

Djibouti

Djibouti ends Dubai’s DP World contract to run container terminal

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DJIBOUTI, (Reuters) – Djibouti has ended a contract with Dubai’s DP World, one of the world’s biggest port operators, to run its Doraleh Container Terminal, the president’s office said on Thursday.

“The Republic of Djibouti has decided to proceed with the unilateral termination with immediate effect of the concession contract awarded to DP World,” the office of President Ismail Omar Guelleh said in a statement.

A DP World spokesman declined to comment.

Last February, the London Court of International Arbitration cleared DP World of all charges of misconduct over a concession to operate the terminal, Dubai’s government said at the time.

In 2014, the government of Djibouti lodged claims accusing DP World, majority-owned by the Dubai government, of illegal payments to secure a 50-year concession for the Doraleh Container Terminal, the Dubai government said.

The president’s office said the contract was ended after the failure to resolve a long-running dispute between the two parties that started in 2012.

It gave no other details on the nature of the dispute, but said it took the decision to protect its “national sovereignty and economic independence.”

“It should be noted that the Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) will now be under the authority of the Doraleh Container Terminal Management Company which is fully owned by the government,” the statement said.

(Reporting by Abdourahim Arteh; Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in London; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Mark Potter)

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Canada

Canadians call for return of relative held in Ethiopia

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AL JAZEERA — A Canadian family is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to negotiate the release of a citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia saying “there will never be a better time than now to get him home”.

Canadian Bashir Makhtal, 49, has been imprisoned in Ethiopia since January 2007 on charges of “terrorism”.

Authorities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, accuse Makhtal of being a ringleader for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) – a rebel group pressing for self-rule in Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region – and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Ethiopia classifies the ONLF as a “terrorist” organisation.

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, however, do not.

Makhtal, whose grandfather was a founding member of the ONLF, has always declared himself innocent, saying he was in the region to promote his clothing business.

Now, more than a decade on, the Ethiopian government’s recent release of thousands of political prisoners and peace talks with the ONLF have given Makhtal’s family further impetus in campaigning for his release.

‘There is hope’
Asiso Abdi, Makhtal’s wife, told Al Jazeera that Ethiopian authorities could be persuaded to include Bashir among those freed, if Canada applies adequate diplomatic pressure.

“If the government of Justin Trudeau is willing to get Bashir home, there will never be a better time than now,” Abdi said. “When there is a life, there is a hope.”

Canadian officials say they are exploring every possible option to bring Makhtal back to Canada.

Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, met Makhtal during a diplomatic visit to Ethiopia in April 2017.

Negotiating Makhtal’s release is a priority for the Canadian government, he told Al Jazeera.

“Our objective is to see this happen as soon as we can… At every opportunity, the discussion with Ethiopian officials regarding Mr Makhtal happens,” Alghabra said.

“[But] these conversations are not easy… The Ethiopian government see him as someone who has been convicted and is serving a sentence.”

Despite mounting diplomatic pressure, Ethiopian officials continue to deny Makhtal is a political prisoner and block his release from jail.

Metasebia Tadesse, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Qatar, told Al Jazeera recent prisoner releases were specifically intended to “create a broader political space within the country”, and will not affect Makhtal’s status.

“Bashir Makhtal is not an Ethiopian, he is imprisoned due to the terrorist crimes he committed,” Tadesse said. “One cannot mix his case with the current measures taken by the Ethiopian government.”

When questioned, Tadesse refused to provide Al Jazeera with further details regarding the nature of the “terrorist crimes”.

‘An unfair trial’
Rights group Amnesty International said Makhtal has been detained unfairly.

“Once charges were laid against Makhtal we pressed for him to be provided with a fair trial and an opportunity to mount an effective defence, such as by having full access to allegations, evidence and witnesses against him,” Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International in Canada, told Al Jazeera.

“That was not the case, nor was his appeal hearing a fair process,” Neve said.

Lorne Waldman, Makhtal’s Canada-based lawyer, told Al Jazeera that Ethiopia had subjected his client to a number of extrajudicial measures: including an illegal extradition and torture.

“Bashir’s version of events has been the same since the beginning, that he was in Somalia doing business … [and] when there was the [Ethiopian] military incursion into Somalia he, like thousands of others, fled to the Kenyan border,” Waldman said.

“He was detained at the border and taken into custody in Nairobi, and from Nairobi he was illegally spirited on a private plane to Ethiopia without any formal extradition proceedings,” he added.

“Then he was tortured and charged under the anti-terrorism provisions in Ethiopia, before being prosecuted in what people generally felt was an unfair trial, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.”

Extraordinary rendition
Amnesty said Makhtal’s transfer to Ethiopia was “tantamount to an instance of extraordinary rendition”, adding it was “very likely” he had been subjected to torture or other forms of cruel treatment in Ethiopia.

The prevalence of torture in Ethiopia – described as a “major problem” in Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report – and Makhtal being held incommunicado at the beginning of his detention support Amnesty’s concerns regarding mistreatment, Neve said.

Authorities in Ethiopia did not acknowledge they had imprisoned Makhtal until July 2007, six months after his arrival in Addis Ababa, his relatives told Al Jazeera.

Nearly 11 years later, Makhtal’s family still has little clarity about whether Ethiopia will release him.

Some 12,000km away from his prison cell in Ethiopia, Makhtal’s absence in Canada continues to be felt every day, Abdi told Al Jazeera.

“They took my husband and with him my future happiness,” she said.

“I have already missed 11 wedding anniversaries with him, 11 years of my life have gone. I’m missing a half of me deep inside the dark cell of an Ethiopian prison.”

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Ethiopia

Ethiopia releases 1,500 prisoners in eastern Somali region -statement

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NAIROBI, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Ethiopia has released more than 1,500 prisoners in its eastern Somali region, government officials said on social media, days after the government declared a state of emergency to try to tamp down unrest in Africa’s second most populous nation.

“On Wednesday, over 1,500 prisoners were released following a pardon by President Abdi Mohammed Omer,” the Somali Region’s communications bureau said on Facebook late on Wednesday, referring to the regional president.

“The inmates had been jailed on charges that include anti-peace activities,” it added, without giving details.

Ethiopia has already released more than 6,000 prisoners since January, including some high-profile journalists and opposition leaders. They were charged with a variety of offences, including terrorism.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the releases were designed to increase “political space” in Ethiopia following anti-government protests that began in 2015.

Hundreds of people were killed during two years of protests that convulsed the country’s two most populous provinces, whose ethnic Oromo and Amharic communities complain they are under-represented in the country’s corridors of power.

Friday’s declaration of a six-month-long state of emergency followed Hailemariam’s surprise resignation on Thursday. He remains in office, overseeing the region’s biggest economy, until a new prime minister is appointed.

The government previously imposed a state of emergency in October 2016, which was lifted in August 2017. During that time, curfews were in place, movement was restricted and about 29,000 people were detained. It’s unclear how many remain in prison.

(Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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