Lawyers argue over `blood money' for Saudi nurses

Saudi Arabia's ambassador reacted furiously yesterday to Britain's criticism of the sentence of 500 lashes handed down to a nurse accused of murder. Steve Boggan says that while lawyers and politicians are turning up the heat, a second nurse accused of the killing awaits her fate.
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The Independent Online
The British nurses accused of murdering a colleague in Saudi Arabia were caught in a furious row over "blood money" yesterday as the diplomatic argument over plans to flog one of them escalated .

Lucille McLauchlan, 31, was visited in prison by one of her lawyers and told of an Islamic court's decision to sentence her to 500 lashes and eight years in jail. Her co-accused Deborah Parry, 38, still awaits news of her fate, but claims that a lawyer's "trick" would make it impossible for her to be beheaded were rejected last night by Islamic scholars.

While lawyers for both sides were arguing, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Dr Ghazi Algosaibi, attacked criticism of his country's justice system and those who sought to "demean" it. "We do not propose to change any country's judicial system and we will not allow any country to change our system," he said.

On Tuesday, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, angered the Saudis by denouncing the threat of flogging as "wholly unacceptable in the modern world".

Foreign Office sources said diplomats were busy working in the background to defuse tension between Britain and Saudi Arabia in advance of Mr Cook's meeting with Prince Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, in New York tomorrow.

The blood money row began early yesterday after lawyers for both sides held a meeting in Adelaide. That concluded with a joint statement saying that both sets of Australian lawyers - those representing Frank Gilford, brother of the murdered nurse Yvonne Gilford, and those representing the accused - had agreed that Mr Gilford had not waived his rights to demand the death penalty. Under Sharia law, only he can have the sentence commuted.

The meeting was held in response to claims by Salah al-Hejailan, the nurses' Saudi lawyer, that he had "tricked" Mr Gilford into waiving his rights by persuading him to enter into negotiations over reparations, or blood money.

"Under Saudi law ... once you talk about money in any way, you cannot again talk about the death sentence," said Mr al-Hejailan. "He has signed an agreement which is with the British Commissioner in Australia. [Mr Gilford's] lawyers do not understand Saudi law. If you like, I have tricked them out of the option of a death penalty."

He claimed that Mr Gilford and the nurses had signed an agreement under which a trust fund would be set up in his sister's name to establish a children's hospital and a further pounds 290,000 would be paid to Mr Gilford. Unconfirmed reports put the total package at pounds 750,000. It is believed that a number of anonymous benefactors have pledged the lion's share.

Ms Gilford, 55, was stabbed 13 times, bludgeoned and suffocated in her room at the King Fahd military medical complex in Dhahran last December.

A source in Mr al-Hejailan's office in Saudi told The Independent that a copy of the blood money agreement was being held there in a safe.

However, the claims brought a swift and angry denial from Mr Gilford at his home in Jamestown, South Australia. A statement issued by Michael Abbott QC, and John Keen for Mr Gilford, and by Dick Whitington QC and Michael Burnett for the nurses, said: "Both parties confirmed that the comments attributed to Mr Salah Al-Hejailan [that Mr Gilford] had in any waived his rights as an heir under Saudi law were wrong ... Mr Gilford has not waived any rights he may have."

The British Consul in Australia refused to confirm that the commissioner was holding an agreement, although the Foreign Office in London said it had been aware of negotiations and had encouraged them.

Mr al-Hejailan insisted that an agreement was in existence. However, Islamic scholars in the UK rejected his claims that it would render a death sentence impossible. Neither scholar would be named, but agreed negotiations can continue until agreement is made or a death sentence carried out.

News of the latest developments were passed to the two nurses yesterday by Michael Dark, Mr al-Hejailan's partner, at the Central Prison in Dammam. William Patey, the consul general, is expected to visit the women on Sunday, while Baroness Symons, minister for consular relations, spoke to both families yesterday. Ann and Stan McLauchlan, from Dundee, were arranging to fly out to their daughter yesterday.

The Saudi ambassador's outburst came in response to Mr Cook's comments, the reaction of the British media and accusations levelled at the Saudi justice system by Labour's Ann Clwyd, a long time campaigner for human rights.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she said: "These extreme punishments are imposed after trials which everybody knows are not conducted in accordance with internationally accepted judicial standards.

"There are doubts, of course, that these women were guilty ... They made confessions which apparently followed physical and sexual assaults by police, and they were coerced into confessing."

Details of the women's subsequent statements, withdrawing their confessions, were published in the Daily Mail. Ms McLauchlan spoke of being ordered to undress, of her breasts being fondled and of being slapped across the face. She said she was threatened with multiple rape and told she would be home "in two or three weeks" if she confessed to the killing. Ms Parry's experience was similar. "I am told to remove my clothes or they would do it for me. I removed them and they surrounded me. One knelt down with his head just between my knees and removed some pubic hair with scissors. They said if I move they would cut me."

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