Blood money, arms and politics: the Saudi deal

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The Independent Online
The British company with the most to lose from the execution of two nurses charged with murder in Saudi Arabia has made the biggest "blood money" donation to save their lives. Steve Boggan reveals how the women were spared public beheadings and how British businesses queued up to protect their own interests.

British Aerospace, Britain's largest defence contractor, was the biggest contributor to the "blood money" fund which guaranteed the lives of two nurses accused of murder in Saudi Arabia.

Sources close to the deal confirmed yesterday that the company - which takes a huge slice of Britain's pounds 2.5bn-a-year trade with Saudi Arabia - was at the head of a list that included other defence contractors as well as private donors.

The money, $1.2m (pounds 730,000), was paid into an account in Australia on Wednesday and will be released when Frank Gilford, brother of the murdered nurse Yvonne Gilford, fulfils two conditions of the blood-money settlement, seen yesterday by The Independent.

First, he must plead in writing for clemency for Deborah Parry, 38, one of the British nurses accused of the murder. She awaits a Saudi court's verdict on a charge of "intentional murder". Her co-accused, Lucille McLauchlan, has already been found guilty of a lesser charge and sentenced to eight years in prison and 500 lashes.

Second, Mr Gilford must make a statement to the court repeating assertions that his sister was not a lesbian. Confessions which the nurses say were forced out of them centre on a row which was supposed to have erupted because Ms Gilford ended a lesbian relationship with Ms Parry. The accused say no such relationship existed.

British Aerospace refused to confirm or deny its involvement yesterday. It is currently delivering 48 Tornado strike aircraft and a number of Hawk and Pilatus training jets to the Saudis.

The defence industry was anxious that the crisis over the nurses' possible executions should not affect relations between the two countries. It is understood that the Foreign Office played a major role in raising the blood money. Officials even provided names and telephone numbers of senior figures in the defence industry and suggested that Jonathan Ashbee, Ms Parry's brother-in-law, ask them for money.

"They were incredibly helpful," Mr Ashbee said yesterday.

Among those thought to have made a donation is Vickers, which has been competing for a contract to supply tanks to the Saudis. Andrew Green, Britain's ambassador in Saudi Arabia, is a former non-executive director of Vickers. The company yesterday refused to confirm or deny that it had made a donation.

Salah Hejailan, the nurses' lawyer in Saudi Arabia, confirmed that the money was transferred on Wednesday to a client account at a firm of solicitors in Adelaide. It can be released to Mr Gilford only with the mutual agreement of both sides; that agreement will come when he fulfils his promises next week. A verdict in Ms Parry's case is expected soon afterwards.

Remarkably, according to the settlement seen by The Independent, Mr Gilford will still receive the money even if the court finds Ms Parry guilty of a lesser degree of murder than "intentional". In that event, there would be no possibility of either nurse being executed.

"In an early version of the settlement, there was a provision that the money should be returned if there was no death penalty, but he insisted on keeping it later on," said Mr Hejailan. "Mr Gilford has made an abuse of the system ... He has treated it as an opportunity to make money and not simply to save the lives of two innocent women."

Mr Gilford will keep $500,000 of the fund, with the remaining $700,000 being donated to a children's hospital in Adelaide.

Yesterday, details emerged of another murder at the King Fahd Military Medical Centre, where Ms Gilford was killed. The victim, Liberty de Guzman, was murdered in 1994. Both women were stabbed and beaten. In each case, a security guard vanished shortly afterwards.