A member of the ISIS terror cell nicknamed the “Beatles” was sentenced to life in prison on Friday by US District Judge T. S. Ellis in Alexandria, Virginia, after gut-wrenching statements in court from family members of victims.
Alexanda Kotey had pleaded guilty in September to taking part in a hostage scheme that led to the deaths of American, Japanese and British citizens in Syria. As part of his plea, Kotey will be transferred to the UK, where members of his family live, to serve the rest of his term after serving 15 years in the US.
“You get a life sentence,” Ellis said, for what he called “about the most serious crimes that can be committed.”
After handing down Kotey’s sentence, Ellis said he hoped it would serve as a deterrence to future terror groups. “We don’t give up,” he said of the US government. “We will look for you. We will find you.”
Before Kotey’s sentencing, 12 family members of the victims and two former hostages of the group gave gut-wrenching statements in court of their loss and continued struggles in the wake of the tragedy – at times speaking directly to Kotey and his co-defendant El Shafee Elsheikh, who had been convicted by a jury in the same courtroom weeks earlier.
“I wake up hearing my dad’s screams,” Bethany Haines, the daughter of British aid worker David Haines – who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014 – told the court. “I often wonder, will I ever be happy? … Will I ever be normal again?”
“Open your eyes and look at me,” Shirley Sotloff, the mother of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was held hostage by the group and eventually executed on video, told Elsheikh, who sat across the courtroom. “The pain is beyond words,” she said, adding that the video of her son’s murder “continues to be replayed with the click of a button for millions to see.”
“You and your war of terror have taken everything from us,” she told Kotey and Elsheikh.
Other family members of the victims spoke about how they still don’t know where the remains of their children, fathers and spouses are.
“We need to find Kayla and how she died,” said Marsha Mueller, the mother of Kayla Mueller. Her daughter was held hostage by the group and, according to prosecutors, was raped by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before being killed by the terror group. ISIS claims she died in a Jordanian airstrike.
“I hope she knows how proud we are of her,” Mueller said.
Michael Foley, the brother of American journalist James Foley, who was also killed by the group, spoke of his brother’s lasting legacy and how “in many ways (James is) more alive than ever” through the example he set, and the foundation and work done in his honor.
While some family members spoke of forgiving the two men, others said they simply could not.
“I will not hate you. … I choose to let my heart be broken open, not broken apart,” Paula Kassig, the mother of US aid worker Peter Kassig, told the pair.
Dragana Haines, the wife of David Haines, a British aid worker who was taken hostage and killed by ISIS, told Kotey and Elsheikh she hoped they lived to be 200 years old so they could watch their own family members die.
“For all I care, you can live long and suffer,” she said.
Two Syrians and former hostages of the group also spoke, telling the men that their actions did not reflect the religion of Islam and were no different from the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Don’t you ever think you” fought against the regime, one of the former hostages, who asked CNN not to reveal his name for the safety of his family in Syria, told the two men. “You destroyed my country. … None of the Syrians will forgive you.”