`I thought we were facing beheading by the Saudis'

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The Independent Online
"I Confessed because we were told we were going to go home." Monica Hall still wrings her hands at the memory of the promise made to her by the Saudi police after she and her husband were charged with the murder of her nursing colleague, Helen Feeney. "All the time, I thought I was going to be executed," she says.

"I thought we were going to face beheading. Even after Helen's family had waived their right to retribution, my husband Peter was told that we should not rule out execution."

Behind Mrs Hall, on the dining-room table of her north Dublin home, lies a heap of newspaper cuttings with photographs of the faces that have been haunting her for two weeks: Lucille McLauchlan and Deborah Parry, the two British nurses charged - in frighteningly similar circumstances - with the murder of an older colleague, Australian nurse Yvonne Gilford. For if Mrs Hall's experiences at the hands of the Saudi authorities are typical, the two Britons can expect nothing more than a charade of a trial.

Mrs Hall, a 46-year old nursing sister who was arrested in the Saudi city of Taif in 1986, described yesterday how she and her husband were deprived of sleep for more than a week during lengthy interrogations, promised their freedom if they signed false confessions of murdering the Irish nurse, tried in secret without being permitted to defend themselves and subjected to repeated attempts to convert them to Islam while awaiting their fate in overcrowded prisons.

Claiming that Ms Feeney was in fact murdered as a result of a personal dispute with Saudi members of the Taif hospital administration, Mrs Hall suspects that Saudis murdered Nurse Gilford in Dhahran before Christmas. "The Saudis picked on the British because of Britain's trade links," she says. "They knew there woudn't be a big fuss from your government if they charged your nurses with murder."

Mrs Hall, who divorced her husband when they were both released after three years of imprisonment, had been a nurse in Ireland since her teens, qualifying as a midwife and working for the Irish charity Concern in Bangladesh, before being invited to work as nursing supervisor of operating rooms at the Taif Maternity Hospital in 1984 by Helen Feeney, whom she was later charged with murdering.

"Helen and I had been friends since our days together at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. Helen was the nursing director in Taif and I owed my job to her. She was murdered on 9 April 1986. They claimed later that Peter and I had killed her for money - just like they are saying about the two British nurses now. It was ridiculous. But after days of interrogation and no sleep - when the Saudi police claimed my husband had already signed a false confession and showed me blood outside the interrogation room, I confessed. They told us we would go home if only I agreed to sign. Then afterwards I was told I was going to go for trial. It was weeks before our embassies found out and got in touch with us."

Like the two British nurses, Monica Hall was forced to re-enact her alleged crime - Helen Feeney appeared to have been beaten to death in her flat - but was imprisoned even before charges had been laid against her. "I hadn't a clue about Islamic law - that was a big problem - and I didn't realise that the things the Saudis were doing, not giving me a chance to defend myself, refusing to let my lawyer speak, were themselves against this law. It was a mockery what happened to me.

"They took me to the women's section of Taif prison at one in the morning, in a jeep with four policemen and a veiled woman. They ordered me out into a prison compound where policemen leered and jeered at me. I could feel so much my own vulnerability and helplessness. I was told to go into the compound and there were dozens of women in the darkness of all nationalities and an overpowering stench of excreta." For days, the Saudi authorities tried to convert Monica Hall to Islam.

"They gave me books to read on Islam and each day told me to go into the prison courtyard where they played audio cassettes in English over the loudspeaker. They were all about Islam and for a week I went out and took notes. They got quite excited about this. They thought they had a convert until the head warden told me that Christ was not the Son of Man. I said I believed that Christ was, and he shouted: `In that case, God had to come down and sleep with Mary.' That was the end of the tapes and that was the end of their overt ways to convert me."

Monica Hall says that she and her fellow nurses - including Helen Feeney - had lived a hectic social life in Taif, visiting parties in European compounds where alcohol was freely available. She married her English husband Peter after only eight weeks but says she remained friends with Helen Feeney.

"My trial was totally unfair. It was held in secret. I wasn't allowed to speak in my own defence. My Saudi lawyer was allowed into the court on the first day, locked out on the second day and on the third and final day, he failed to turn up at the court. When we later retracted our statements - which the British nurses have apparently done now - we didn't get a new trial, which was our right under Islamic law. The Feeney family said on the first day of the trial that they didn't want any retribution or execution. All they wanted to know was who killed Helen and why."

Monica Hall and her husband spent more than 18 months awaiting their trial and were later asked to sign their prison sentences - later commuted by the Saudi Royal family - without having them translated from Arabic. "I was told that the King had pardoned us - we didn't know why. I was forced to write a letter of thanks to him for the pardon. I wrote it, of course. I would have done anything at that stage."

Her three years of imprisonment, which she says transformed her life, remain vivid in Monica Hall's mind, especially the beating of her fellow female inmates. "Prison floggings would occur frequently and without any warning. No one knew who was to be flogged until the police arrived [at the prison].

"We all had to sit and witness the procedure. Usually three men, two police and a muttawa [religious police] were present - one to do the caning, one to count and a lieutenant. No more than 50 [strokes] were given at a time on the shoulder and buttocks. The woman, facing a wall with her hands on the wall, `sat' on her ankles during the caning. The bruising aftwards had to be seen to be believed."