“I forgive you”. The words of Mike Haines – the brother of murdered British aid worker David Haines – seemed to ring out around the courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia.
The intensity of the moment is palpable, as finally, the family members of the Western hostages who were brutally tortured and killed by the so-called IS ‘Beatles’ in Syria had their day in an American court.
One-by-one, they stand just feet away from the murderers of their loved ones, and come to a microphone to read out searing, heartfelt victim statements.
Alexanda Kotey, who has pleaded guilty on terror charges, sits and listens in a green prison jumpsuit, flanked by his defence team.
El Shafee Elsheikh, recently convicted, sits across from him.
IS ‘Beatle’ Alexanda Kotey jailed for life for his role in torture and killing of Western hostages
“Look at me”, Shirley Sotloff demands of the two men, as she prepares to read out her speech dedicated to her son, the journalist Steven Sotloff, who was killed at the hands of Kotey and Elsheikh in 2014.
“Steven’s life being taken so brutally is beyond comprehension… you destroyed our lives,” she tells them.
Many of the family members struggle through tears as they address the court.
Perhaps the most distressing moment comes when Athea Haines, the daughter of aid worker David Haines, breaks down at the microphone.
“I lost my father at four years old”, she says, “it is not easy to be that kid in school whose dad was killed by terrorists”.
Martha Mueller, the mother of killed aid worker Kayla Mueller, can’t look at Kotey or Elsheikh.
“I wake up several times a night thinking of her,” she says through tears. Her husband Carl holds a gentle hand on her shoulder in support.
“We have no idea how many ISIS leaders raped our daughter,” Ms Mueller says. “We’re not seeking revenge, just the truth.”
Many of these family members don’t know what happened to their loved ones in their final moments, or where their remains are.
Many of them talk about suffering from insomnia, increased anxiety, and PTSD, but in their remarkably moving statements, many of them also talk of hope, unity and forgiveness.
“I choose to let my heart be broken open and not broken apart”, says Paula Kassig, as she remembers her son, aid worker Peter Kassig.
For these families, today wasn’t just the day Alexanda Kotey was sentenced to life in prison, it was the end of a near-decade-long ordeal to bring their loved ones’ killers to justice.